The World is a Book: A Page in Rwanda

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine Lydia Hsu comes from the 10-square mile patch of green in upstate New York that calls itself home to Cornell University – otherwise known as Ithaca, New York. Since middle school, she has wanted to pursue a career in teaching English, but after taking her first class on Africa at Northwestern with Professor Glassman, she decided to major in both English Literature and African Studies and pursue a Secondary Teaching Certification through SESP. Outside of classes, she divides her time between work, student groups, and play. She is a teaching assistant for the Center for Talent Development and a Jumpstart Corps Member at Howard Area Community Center. She serves as the Events Coordinator for the African Students Association, the leader of the Undergraduate Africa Seminar, the African Studies Representative on the Weinberg Student Advisory Board, and the Publicity Chair for TOMCats. Outside of all of this, she enjoys nighttime walks on the lake fill, Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances, days spent at the Art Institute, and spontaneous Red Mango runs. This summer, she will turn another page and go to Rwanda to teach English at Network for Africa’s Learning Centre in Kigali. This project unites all three of her academic interests – English, African Studies, and Secondary Education – in the goal of creating and implementing an ELL curriculum for students at the school. She will not only have the opportunity to take what she has learned about Rwanda and English education to develop an ELL curriculum, but she will also have the chance to challenge and supplement what she has learned to enrich her understanding of Rwanda and expand her experience as an English teacher – both of which she hopes will give her a glimpse of what she eventually plans to do for the long-term. GRANT: Lydia is travelling on an Immersion Experience Grant given by the Office of the Provost. This grant offers $2,000 of support for students engaged in intensive summer experiences, whether based domestically or internationally. For more information about the grant, go to:

A Somber Update

One of the teachers at the Learning Centre passed away last night, after being hit by the grenade on Wednesday. I will have to sub for his evening class until they find a new teacher. I think he just got married a year ago and has a very young child. We may visit his family to see if they need anything. Pray for his family, please. And pray for me, so that I can take on another class and be a good teacher to both.

The funeral car parked at the house

Rwanda’s newspaper New Times has been shut down for the past few days, so there is no official information about the number of victims wounded or killed in the bombing. Everything I know has been word of mouth. According to the school director, 37 were critically injured and 3 deaths have been confirmed.

I will be attending the funeral this afternoon.

4:40 PM – I just returned from the funeral. It turns out that he just got married last year and his wife is pregnant. It is very, very sad. However, it was heart-warming to see the many droves of friends and family that came by to pay their respects at the house. There is such a strong sense of community here. Apparently in Rwanda, as long as you know the person who has passed away (it does not matter to what degree of familiarity), you are expected to come to the funeral. The family members wore beautiful white dresses – I was told that when a spouse passes away just shortly after a wedding, the widow and the relatives wear white to honor the dead.

The car carrying the coffin.

Silver Lining

Every cloud has a silver lining.

In light of yesterday’s events, I decided to use the bombing as a teaching point for today’s lesson plan about writing.

What happened yesterday?” I asked the students. I wrote on the board the 5 W’s (and 1 H): Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? The students seemed hesitant to answer at first, but once they grasped what I was asking, the answers started coming.

  • Who: President Paul Kagame. 25 wounded. 7 critically injured (2 children). 1 confirmed death.
  • What: a bombing
  • When: 7:00 PM last night. August 11, 2010.
  • Where: Rubangura’s House. Kigali, Rwanda
  • Why: (don’t know)
  • How: someone threw a grenade

We discussed the difference between FACT and OPINION. I was surprised by how difficult this concept was to teach. I repeatedly emphasized that FACT is something known to be true that is not debatable. OPINION, on the other hand, is a belief or personal view that is not certain and may not be shared by everybody. (Does that sound clear to you? Maybe there is a better way to explain it…)

The Carrot, the Egg, and the Coffee bean - "Adversity Creates Opportunity"

Eric is right-handed,” I said, “Eric writes with his right hand. Fact or opinion?”

What I thought was a simple concept turned out to be much more difficult to grasp than I had anticipated. I spent a lot longer on this than I had planned, but I decided to save compound sentences for tomorrow because I really wanted to emphasize the importance of distinguishing between fact and opinion. The class got into a good discussion of writing and language. We covered such terms as “exaggeration,” “to manipulate,” “bias,” “corrupt.” I had the opportunity to bring in my most beloved Orwell quote, “If thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought.” We talked about the power of language and the importance of not only being able to identify biases in writing, but also to examine our own writing for biases. We specifically discussed journalism and the Rwandan newspaper New Times which is blatantly and unashamedly biased.

In related news, I’ve completely revamped my curriculum once again. After the incident last week when my student shared with me his struggles and “problem” of not being able to pay for a college education*, I reexamined the lesson plans I had prepared – lesson plans on grammar, vocabulary, writing, listening, speaking, and reading – I went over them proudly, looked at them wistfully, and then tossed them.

If my goal for the next month is to do as much as I can to improve my students’ futures, I need to be focusing on the grammar, vocabulary, etc. that will get them jobs. That means that I need to teach them the vocabulary that will allow them to master interviews and read newspapers. It means that I need to teach them how to sculpt a business letter and a job application. It means that I need to teach them what questions to anticipate and how to respond in situations that require them to present themselves in the best light. I need to use my students’ needs and desires to sculpt my curriculum, not what I personally believe to be necessary to a comprehensive knowledge of the English language.

The Farmer and the Mule

To start off this new chapter of learning, I began by giving the students a fable to read. Initially, I thought I’d use an inspiring rags-to-riches story (like Orprah’s, for instance), but after sifting through the stories of various celebrities, I thought it might be more tangible and universal to use a fable. I chose two: “The Farmer and the Mule,” and “The Carrot, the Egg, and the Coffee Bean” by Mary Sullivan (you can google both). Both stories have the same three morals:


  1. There is a solution to every problem.
  2. Never give up.
  3. Adversity creates opportunity.

The readings were not easy, by any means, but once the students grasped the vocabulary and the morals, we were able to have a very good discussion. I wanted to use these fables to first inspire and encourage my students to aim high, to not be discouraged, and to always look for the silver lining. They face hardships that I cannot ever possibly comprehend, but I hope to do as much as I can in the next month to help them use their “adversity to create opportunity.”

For next Monday, I’ve asked my students to bring in job applications from the newspapers, from the radio, and wherever else they can find them. Hopefully, this will be a good starting point to framing the curriculum for the next four weeks.

* Tangent: on the test that I administered last Friday, I had my students form conditional statements. This student wrote the following statements:

  • If I find a job, I will resolve my problem.
  • If I had money, I would build a big house.
  • If I had worked hard, I would have received a lot of money.
  • If I had one million dollars, I would start a business.
  • If I had one million dollars, I would help my family.
  • If I had one million dollars, I would continue my studies.

The statements were clearly reminiscent of the discussion that I had with him last week, but it also struck me how different they were from conditional statements that an American student might have written…

And, regarding yesterday’s incident, it almost seems as if nothing has happened. When I first asked my students “What happened yesterday?” they all gave me blank looks. At first, I wondered whether they had not yet heard about the bombing, but it turns out they all had and just didn’t think it was a big deal.

It’s happened before,” said one student, shrugging his shoulders.

I’ve been here for four weeks now and, for the most part, I feel as if I’ve acclimated. But it’s events like these that make me realize how much this world differs from the world from which I came.


A bomb just went off in town a couple hours ago (apparently at 7 PM? And it’s 9:07 PM right now). It’s not on the news yet and I haven’t heard anything from the U.S. Embassy. I’m alright  – although I was at UTC just an hour before, and my friend who was in the same coffee shop heard the explosive and saw people run right after I left. Apparently it was in the nearby business district where there are lots of people and lots of parked buses. I was originally going to walk through there because there are lots of souvenir shops but I decided against it because I didn’t have enough money. I’m still waiting to hear the details … will keep you posted.

People here are surprisingly … chill about it. Aside from the initial text messages and phone calls from friends and even one of my students, there hasn’t been much to-do about this. I was originally going to go out to a soccer game after dinner, but opted to head home. I’m not really sure how to respond to this. Part of me cannot believe A-GRENADE-WENT-OFF-AND-PEOPLE-MIGHT-HAVE-DIED. But another part of me is buying into the nonchalance that seems to be the theme after people confirm that their loved ones are okay.

Obviously it is assumed that this bombing (like the others in preceding months) is political, especially given the timing – just two days after the election, and just hours after election results were announced.

9:15 PM – estimated 20 wounded.

9:20 PM – apparently “just hours after the election commission announced Kagame had won reelection.”

10:00 PM – according to CNN, at least 1 dead and 7 wounded.

10:14 PM – finally received an email from the U.S. Embassy: “The U.S. Embassy in Kigali reports that a grenade attack occurred in the Rubangura area of Kigali at approximately 7:00pm this evening.  This location is along one of the roads leading out from the main roundabout near Union Trade Center (UTC) towards the taxi stand in the direction of the commercial district.  Injuries have been reported but not confirmed. Until further information becomes available, the Embassy urges U.S. citizens in Rwanda to remain vigilant, exercise caution, and avoid crowds, demonstrations, or any other form of public gathering.”

10:18 PM – Rwanda News Agency “more than two dozen people injured and at least one dead”


There are so many HUGE billboards of Kagame

In light of today’s election, I figured I’d include a post with more photos to demonstrate just how prevalent Kagame is when I say “Kagame is EVERYWHERE.” Literally. Everywhere. I walked around town on Saturday and documented some of the instances just so I could give you an idea of what “campaigning” is like in Rwanda. Take a look. And bear in mind that I would have posted pictures of the other candidates … except that I didn’t see any. Wooooooo democracy. Yeah…sort of. Best part was that I got a text message from the RPF this morning telling me to vote for Kagame. Really? Is that necessary? As if I haven’t been bombarded with Kagame left and right since I’ve gotten here – even if I could vote, I highly doubt that a text message is going to change my thoughts on Kagame!

Entryway to the election site

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the polls in Kimihurura this morning and take pictures and even a video! (Sadly, the internet is too slow and unreliable here to upload it). A very kind lady who was working for the election committee gave me a tour of the election site and explained to me how the proceedings worked. Elections are a HUGE affair in Rwanda! People come with their families decked out in beautiful traditional clothing, there is lively music, and people stay around the site to chat and dance. Wish it were like that in the States!


Also, the NYTimes had a really great article today about the election! You should take a read 🙂

Kagame pins, keychains, and even flash drives!

Even the trees support Kagame!

Perspective and Purpose

I’ve been at such a high in the past few weeks that I suppose it is inevitable that I would finally hit a low. One of my students had been asking me to visit his family for sometime now, and I finally agreed. After class today, I packed up my netbook, erased the whiteboard, and then walked to Novotel with him. I was so excited to not only have the opportunity to meet his family and see his house, but also to gain a new perspective of Rwanda in an area of Kigali I had never been.

Neighborhood children

Well, I certainly got that new perspective.

Turns out that the main reason behind my student’s invitation was not simple hospitality, as I had originally presumed. As soon as we boarded the minibus for Ramera, he began to tell me about his “problem” and ask me to pay for a year’s worth of tuition at the university (about $300 USD).

Just for context, most of my students are orphans who are unemployed and live with foster families. Many of them walk over two hours to get to class every day because they cannot afford a 150 RWF (the equivalent of 20 cents USD) bus-ride to town.

Of course, I was upset. I tried to explain to him that I wanted to help him but I could not simply hand him money. I told him repeatedly that I believed that the best way to help people was to help them learn to help themselves. Money was only a band-aid – a temporary fix to a much deeper problem. I told him that that was why I came to Rwanda to teach English, because I knew that with an English education, all of my students would be more qualified to find jobs.

But either he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, listen to my reasoning. Instead, he continued to emphasize that his situation was different from my situation, and told me that, in Rwanda, friends who care for one another will share their resources. “If I need medicament and I have no money,” he said, “And I have friend. And I tell them I need this medicament. Then they give me 1000, 500, 200. They give me what they have. We all help each other.”

The only way to get to many homes was to hike up steep hills like this.

We got off of the bus, I paid 300 for the both of us, and he told me we would visit his sister first. While my house and many others are located off of the main road and require powerful motorcycle or car engines to navigate the dusty, pot-hole infested dirt roads – many of the shacks in the city are located on the sides of hills and can only be reached by climbing up steep, rocky inclines. It was quite the work-out. You can only imagine what happens during Rwanda’s rainy season when all the dusty dirt becomes mud and entire homes slide off of the hills.

First stop: a small shack partitioned from the others by a hanging sheet. One is hit first not by the infestation of flies, or the condition of the dark dingy room, or the naked children running about with dirt-crusted faces – but by the nauseatingly pungent odor emanating from the structure on the right. It is leaning precariously and the stench is overpowering. Good thing I don’t need to use the bathroom, is my first thought.

I enter the shack – which is the size of a handicapped bathroom stall in Annenberg – and I am immediately greeted by my student’s sister, who had been sitting on a chair nursing her newborn baby, born barely a week ago. Then I meet her husband, a couple of her husband’s brothers and sisters, a several neighbors and friends, and other people who stop by to gawk at the umunzugu.

As soon as we sit down, my student begins where he left off and explains to me his sister’s “situation.” From his nuanced and carefully-worded statements, I assume that his sister was raped at a young age and forced to marry her husband to avoid the scandal of a pregnancy out of wedlock. The newborn infant is her fourth child, and my student made sure to emphasize his displeasure about the number of children his sister has had. He says his goal is to “restore his family,” which was displaced and scattered during the genocide, and the addition of children to the family only makes this goal more difficult to achieve. He asks me repeatedly “How can I fix this problem?” and tells me that he wants me to tell all my friends about him so that they can help him. He hands me the infant, whose eyes widen at the sight of my face and it begins to cry. I hand the baby back to him and explain again that I simply cannot hand out money, but that I would be willing to help him with a project or support a business endeavor. Both concepts he brushes away immediately – he only wants immediate cash, which I refuse to give.

Traditional Rwandan food! SO GOOD!!!

Finally, we leave his sister’s home and trudge up another rocky incline to catch a minibus to visit his “Mom’s” house. In Rwanda, so many people lost parents, siblings, and children to the genocide that they refer to their relatives and friends as “Mom,” “sister,” and “brother.” My friends tell me that it is too complicated to refer to everybody by their proper familial relation, and that it calls for unnecessary explanations that bring back memories of the genocide. Many aunts, uncles, and close family friends took in orphans of the genocide as their own because they realized they would have wanted the same for their own children if they had perished in the massacre. So, for them, the experience has made entire extended families immediate families, and you meet many widows who provide for the five or even ten children of their lost brothers and sisters.

My student’s “Mom,” who was a close friend of his parents before the genocide, actually lives in a nice house that is clean, spacious, and well-furnished. She is a tall and stately woman, polished and hospitable. After eating a delicious authentic Rwandan lunch there, I went with my student to visit his other sister at the hospital where she works as a nurse. She too is well-dressed and polished. Obviously, the thought came across my mind whether my student had deliberately taken me to the sister in needier circumstances in order to help his plea for money. I really don’t know.

Finally, I was able to go home. I called a taxi-moto, took it back to Kimihurura, trudged my way up the driveway and into the house. It was only when I had closed the door and threw myself on my bed that the tears started to flow. It wasn’t just everything I had seen and the poverty I had witnessed. It was frustration. Frustration with my student for relying on begging instead of actively trying to forge a path of his own. Frustration with myself for not being able to do more.

I am grateful for the experience and for the new perspective, but it has made me reevaluate my presence here and my goals post-graduation. Am I really doing as much as I can? Is there something more I can do that will have a more significant impact on the lives of my students and others facing similar hardships?

If I were a boy…

AN UPDATE: I now have FORTY students.

Can you imagine?

The first day, there were 19. The second day, there were 30. And now … there are FORTY.

I thought just having nineteen students would be challenging since they are all at different levels in their English, but forty??? Definitely not what I expected – but that’s getting to be the norm and I am excited and ready for the challenge.

I just got out of teaching and I am sitting at Novotel, feet propped up on the table, eating a scone and trying to process the events of today’s lesson. After administering the first grammar test last Friday and collecting the first writing assignment, I now have a better idea of where my students stand and the areas in their English comprehension that need the most improvement. I am still trying to figure out a general curricular framework for the following month and identify the goals that I hope for my students to achieve. However, for now, I’m just taking baby steps and addressing the biggest problem areas first. Grammar is definitely a huge priority, but as a native English speaker, I know that I can provide the most significant support in terms of listening and speaking.

Grading papers at Gisenyi Beach

So far, we’ve covered regular verbs and most of my students are comfortable with filling out verb charts for past, present, future simple, progressive, simple perfect, and perfect progressive. Could YOU do that? 🙂 But when it comes to constructing sentences with these tenses, that’s where they run into a bit of difficulty. It’s one thing to memorize a chart; it’s another to understand and be able to use it. In addition, I’ve found that one of the greatest challenges isn’t teaching new concepts as much as correcting old ones.

Many of my students would frequently say “After to finish my studies” or “After to get a job.” When writing letters, most of the students began their letters with some variation of “How are you? Me I am fine” or “For me I am okay.” I didn’t understand for the longest time why they all consistently used the same incorrect grammar until I started to talk to the teachers and more Rwandans, and realized that these phrases were widely used by the population as a whole.

So, my question then is this: Is a phrase grammatically incorrect if it is an accepted part of the Rwandan English vernacular, even if it defies the rules of standard English?

In other words, if this is how the population communicates and, within this vernacular or dialect, it is accepted as correct … should I label it as “wrong” and correct it?

I’m not sure if I have an answer to that question yet (please feel free to give your input by posting a comment!) but I’ve found that I have started adopting some of the ungrammatical structures of Rwandese English in my own language. More frequently now than before, I catch myself dropping articles or inconsistently conjugating verbs in order to be understood.

Is my goal to teach them Standard English, or is it to teach them to master the form of English that will best qualify them to get a job?

This is a question I need to answer soon as I begin to decide what to prioritize in the curriculum.


Back to today’s lesson. I am still basking in the warm fuzzy glow of knowing that my class learned and ENJOYED learning today. Two days ago, I attempted to teach them how to form conditional statements and completely failed. Well … maybe not completely failed, but it was an exceedingly humbling experience to realize that I could not explain WHY “If + PAST PERFECT → WOULD HAVE + PAST PARTICIPLE” or the difference between “If I was” versus “If I were.” I knew what sounded right, but I was not familiar enough with the rules to teach my students. So, on Monday, I apologized to them and told them that I would have to prepare a better lesson for Wednesday. After literally hours of studying the grammatical rules and writing and re-writing lesson plans that would make the most sense, I was finally ready. I came into class today prepared and ready to tackle all their questions. It is so gratifying when you present a difficult concept and students rise to the challenge!

If I Were a Boy by Beyonce

The best part was that I had the PERFECT song to go with the lesson: Beyonce’s “If I were a boy.” For the opening discussion question, my students had to answer: “If you were a boy/girl, how would your life be different?” Most of the responses adhered to the attributes of Rwandan culture that I’ve observed. For instance, a typical male response:“If I were a girl, I would wait for a husband and I would not think about how I would have to build a house” versus one of the female responses: “If I were a boy, I would eat more food because boys play sports more than girls.”

However, I got a particularly interesting response from Paul, who said, “If I were a girl, I would be rich because people would pay me money.”


Umm… I don’t think I understand, Paul,” I said, “Ah … er … are you a prostitute?”

Yes, we went back to the “indecent” prostitutes. It took about five minutes before I finally figured out what he was trying to say.

The correct sentence: “If I were a girl, I would be rich because I would be pretty and a rich man would marry me and give me money.”


Anyway, the students have really enjoyed the incorporation of music into the curriculum – they LOVE Beyonce! – and as a music aficionado myself, it makes me so happy when I watch them eagerly following the lyrics and singing the tunes outside of class. It is hilarious when they try to mimic Beyonce’s high octave in “If I were a boy.” What better way to learn English than to listen to the songs you love and finally understand what the songs are saying! I am so grateful for all the support from my friends back home (shout out to Eric H. for “Young Forever” and Philbert L for “If I were a boy”!) in terms of finding clean, coherent musical selections that also have well-developed plots. If you think of any other songs I could use, I would greatly appreciate any suggestions!

That’s all I have for you now. IJORO RWIZA.

Umuzungu! Umuzungu! Konnichiwa? Ni-hao? …?


Front Page of the New Times - Rwanda's newspaper: 150,000 Supporters at Kagame's Rally in Gicumbi

Since I’ve arrived here, people have been intensely curious about my ethnicity. After giving my name, I am nearly always asked, “Where are you from?” By this point, I’ve given up answering “Chicago.” Now, I just skip to the real object of the question and state, “My parents are from Taiwan.” Sometimes, I have a little more fun, and I ask, “Where do you think I’m from?” The answers I’ve received have been … well, interesting. Japanese. Malaysian. Thai. Half-Hawaiian. Filipino. Korean. People really have no clue. In fact, most of them don’t guess Chinese or Taiwanese because I don’t look like many of the Chinese internationals that they have seen in Kigali who are there for business.

Ethnicity seems to be an important marker of my identity, however the ethnic markers “Hutu” and “Tutsi” are words that you do not hear often, if at all, in Rwanda – they are the words shrouded by lowered voices and whispers, uttered in dark corners away from music-blaring FPR trucks that incite the ecstatic cheers of thousands clad in red, white, and blue. They are the words of “divisionism,” they are part of the language of “pro-genocide” – and yet, even though they are not spoken, they are tangible concepts that people acknowledge and allow to affect their interactions with others. For all the government’s claims that ethnicity does not exist in Rwanda, people are still very much cognizant of it and fearful of its power.

Kagame, Kagame EVERYWHERE

On my second day of teaching, my students asked me what I thought of Rwanda and after answering vaguely that I’ve enjoyed my time here thus far and that I am excited about the elections, I thought to ask them what they thought of their own country. Three students immediately raised their hands and began to profess their love for Kagame. One of them, a female student, became especially passionate when she discussed how people were previously defined and discriminated against by their height and the shape of their noses, but that these things were no longer important. She also talked about how women have been empowered since 1994 and that they now have more rights and opportunities to educate themselves and run their own businesses. I listened to the vocalized support of Kagame and commended the students for practicing their English, but my attention was not so much on the rehashed lists of Kagame’s achievements as much as the pervasive silence of the rest of the classroom. While the three students gushed their undying love for Kagame, I couldn’t tell whether the other students were silent because they were letting their peers express opinions with which they were in agreement, or whether they had reservations that they could not or would not vocalize.

The August 9 election is approaching and everywhere you go, Kagame’s face looms down at you – from billboards, frames on classroom walls, restaurants, hotels, entire pages of the newspaper, etc. However, beneath the bright colors, the jubilant singing and emotional testimonials, you hear the whispers – whispers of people [removed for now] when they do not join in the cheering, whispers of a dead journalist and an opposition leader found beheaded in a river, whispers of tensions within the political party. It is widely acknowledged that Kagame will win the election by a landslide. However, the fear is not about the election itself so much as the possibility of unrest within the political party and the potential turmoil that would result if anything were to happen to Kagame. It has been 16 years since the genocide, but the events of 1994 have impacted such a large portion of the population that people are still very wary of the tenuousness of the country’s stability and security.

According to the Warden message I received from the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, there is “no indication that these elections will be marked by violence. Nonetheless, the U.S. Embassy recommends that U.S. Citizens residing in or traveling to Rwanda monitor and stay abreast of the news and developments throughout the elections.”

As reassuring (or not) the Warden’s message is, I won’t lie that I’ve grown more cautious and careful about what I say on this blog. Perhaps some of you have noticed that I have not posted as frequently in the past week as I have been accustomed to doing. The truth is that I’m not sure how wise it would be for me to express my stance so explicitly on the internet where it can be easily found and traced. The freedom of expression that I firmly uphold and exercise is not a freedom that is supported in Rwanda and frankly, I am much more aware now of the restrictions and measures that are taken against this freedom than when I first arrived.

Nevertheless, here is my post and I promise many more to come as the heat from the upcoming election intensifies.



Taxi-moto! This is how I travel in Kigali 🙂

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been two weeks since I landed in Kigali. I have experienced and learned so much that it feels as if my time here has been much longer. Did I really take my first taxi-moto just 12 days ago? Was it only last week that I ate my first brochette? Did I really teach my first class just last Monday?

I know the answer to all these questions is yes, but at the same time, I’m inclined to argue that it is no when I examine how much I have changed in my thoughts and perceptions since I got here. I am not the same person. And as I continue to learn and live and breathe here, I know I will continue to change. Some of the changes are obvious – such as the increasing number of battle-wounds I bear from those vicious blood-sucking creatures we call mosquitoes, or the fine brown dust that seems to cover all my clothing, or even the red ink stain that won’t seem to leave my fingers after I grade papers. Others changes are more subtle – for instance, my nonchalance at seeing trucks of armed soldiers drive by, my heightened caution and fear of writing or saying too much, the whisper my voice takes when I have a question about politics.

The changes are there. I can’t pinpoint how they happened or when they occurred, but they’re there. Since it is difficult for me to thoroughly process and quantify the experiences I’ve had, I thought I would share with you some of the stories – perhaps this way, you too can share in my experiences and take from these vignettes what you will.

An afternoon walk in the neighborhood

Artist garnishing clay figurines

Last week – It’s 1:00 PM and I have just returned home from teaching. I arrive by taxi-moto at the gate and Alphonse, one of the two security guards, opens it for me. “Murakoze,” I say, thanking him. He smiles and nods. Before I even head into the house, the wonderful aroma of fresh bread, mixed with basil, tomatoes, and goat cheese envelops me. Ah, Marie is here. I walk into the kitchen to see Marie removing the lasagne from the oven. “Amakuru,” I say. “Ni meza,” she responds. I drop off my bag in the bedroom, change into flip-flops and return to the kitchen to help myself to a generous portion of the lasagne, with a slice of bread on the side and one of those sweet, tiny bananas that Marie has purchased from the market. Delicious.

I have no other plans for the afternoon, so I decide to take a stroll and explore the little shops by the house. I grab some money and a hunk of stale bread to pick at and I head out. First stop: the little art store across the street. I navigate my way to the other side of the road (a greater feat than it sounds because all the smaller roads here are peppered with gigantic potholes and random rocks) and walk down the stairs. Just outside the door, a man is garnishing small clay figurines with black powder to give them a reddish hue. The owner comes out from inside and welcomes me. “Mwirirwe,” he says, “Tu parles francais? Italian? English?” “English,” I say. Turns out he is

The shop owner and two children

fluent in five languages. I ask whether I can examine the artwork inside, and he says, “Yes, yes, yes!” but before I enter, he grabs my elbow and points at the bread. “Can I have some?” he says. Astonished, I say, “Yes, of course,” and hold it out to him. He breaks off a piece and immediately begins to eat it. It is very stale and crusty, but not a single crumb escapes him. I give him the remaining hunk, and he beckons two children from inside who devour the rest of the bread in a matter of seconds. I see their eyes staring hungrily at my purse. I wish I had more food, but I only have jolly ranchers. Those disappear immediately as well.

Next stop: the Mamba Club House, a restaurant and bar just up the street. As I walk past the pool and volleyball nets, the owner comes out and welcomes me. He is from Vancouver and he is living in Rwanda with his Congolese wife and two children. He directs me to a table by the pool where two Americans are lounging. They are from Atlanta, Georgia and they are living in Rwanda because the wife is temporarily working for a public health organization in Kigali. Two of the kids run out, and one of them, a six-year-old boy who is grossly overweight whines, “Daddy, daddy, buy me one these. I want a space person just like this one. I want this one with the wings and the spaceship.” The two parents laugh and the Daddy assures his son that he will purchase that exact action figure. The boy bounds off, his little white tummy bouncing as he runs through the grass.

I visit a couple more stores, buy some Iyange passion fruit juice (SO AMAZINGLY YUMMYLICIOUS) and some mini-bananas. Then, with the sun setting in the distance, I walk a couple minutes back to my street, wave at the art shop owner across the way and go inside.


Learning From Teaching

I taught my first full class today. EVER. I’ve TA-ed, I’ve subbed, I’ve taught for part of a class period – but TODAY was the first day I’ve ever walked into a classroom with a prepared lesson plan in hand and heard students greet me as “Ms. Teacher.” 🙂

My room - bed, mosquito net, closet, Gelato 🙂

The following 3.5 hours were terrifying, exhausting, nerve-wracking, panic-attack-inducing, etcetc. but oh-SO-amazing and gratifying. I LOVE TEACHING.

The night before, I stayed up late not knowing for certain whether I was actually supposed to teach class on Monday. The information I have been given about my job and responsibilities as a teacher at the Learning Centre has been sparse and vague. I have only observed one class and, while I did learn a lot from that experience, I still know so little about my students – their levels in English writing, reading, listening speaking; their learning styles, etc. Because of that, designing a lesson plan was difficult, to put it mildly.

During my observation last Friday, I looked on as the students read an article about hypothetical hanging gardens in ancient Babylonia.

Yeah, my thoughts, exactly. Even I – someone who understood the article – got bored reading it. I can’t imagine how the students felt about a subject that was completely foreign and irrelevant to them. So for my lesson plan, I selected an article from entitled, “Why Women are the Economic Backbone of Rwanda.” You can access it here:

Essentially, I’m thinking that I’ll structure my class like the French language

On the walk to the Learning Centre

classes I took in high school (shout out to Madame Bowman!) but teach with the educational philosophy I developed at Northwestern. There are a couple difficulties though – the two biggest:

1) I have never learned English. I am teaching concepts and vocabulary (grammar, tenses, etc) that I have never learned. Hence, “Learning from Teaching.”

2) I have no reference language with which to teach. When I learned French, I had comparable structures and grammar in English with which to compare the French language. Here, the students are fluent in speaking Kinyarwanda, and some in speaking French, but they have little education in reading and writing in either language. More on this later.

Every class at the Learning Centre begins with a student-led prayer. Most Rwandans are Christian, and since the Learning Centre uses the facilities provided by Solace Ministries, prayer is central to the educational community here.

Entrance to the Learning Centre at Solace Ministries

After the prayer, I had the students pair up, discuss their weekends and then introduce their partners and tell me about their partner’s weekend. Most of my students talked about going to FESTPAD (the Pan-African music festival that Rwanda is hosting for 2010), eating, and going to church and praying to God (which I often heard as “playing to God” because l’s are often pronounced as r’shere).

Then, the notecards. I had all 19 of my students fill out notecards with the following information (I’ve included some of the sample responses):

Name: [Many of my students have standard English names – for instance, I have 3 “Patrick”s – but there are some names that I have yet to learn how to pronounce, such as Umunyurwa Estha or Ruziandamo Saratole]

Age: [Most of my students are 20-25. My oldest student is 30, and the youngest is 14]

Favorite song/artist: [Responses ranged from “Jesus Loves Me,” to Akon, Beyonce, Shakira, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Usher, Enrique Iglesias, and artists I didn’t know, such as Gitoko and R. Dube]

Two of my students! 🙂

Favorite movie/actor: [Jackie Chan, Mission Impossible, Prison Break, Behind Enemy Lines, Lion Heart, and ones I haven’t heard of – Gakuba, Marina, Kanyabya]

Strengths (reading/writing/speaking/listening): [answers varied but most put “reading” and “listening”]

Weaknesses (same as above): [again, a variety of answers, but most put “writing” and “speaking”]

Time you are willing to spend on homework: [varied from 1-3 hours]

What you hope to learn: [answers ranged from “business,” to

Do you have notebooks and pens?: [most students do not have notebooks … I’m not sure how I will be able to teach writing unless I obtain these for them]

After the note cards, we went over the reading – I divided the reading into segments to read aloud first, and then student volunteers re-read paragraphs to strengthen pronunciation. Then, I had the students go over the reading in pairs to find unfamiliar words and terms to go over. Returning to my earlier note on not having a reference language, this came to present quite a challenge when trying to explain vocab. One particularly illuminating instance was trying to explain the word “decent” (used in the context of the reading as “to earn a decent living”). I first attempted to use and explain synonyms such as ‘suitable,’ ‘acceptable,’ ‘sufficient’ – to no avail. Then I tried to approach ‘decent’ from something more tangible, if also tangential.

Me: If I am ‘decent,’ I wear a suit. Nice clothes. If I am ‘indecent,’ I wear a short skirt [gesture mini-skirt line] and a low neck [gesture plunging neck-line].

Students: [blank looks]

Me: [looks at school director, Moses, for help]

Moses: Indecent is like prostitutes. Prostitutes are indecent. They are not decent.

Students: [sudden lightbulb] Ahhhh…

…Good thing Moses was there because I would never have thought of using “prostitutes” to explain “decent”…

After going over the vocab, I wrote a couple questions about the reading on the board and divided the class in groups of threes to answer the questions. The class really excelled at this exercise and demonstrated their ability to extract information from the reading, especially given that they did not know many of the key words in the reading.

I concluded the class with a game of Hangman, in which I wrote the following letter to them:

Dear Students,

You are all wonderful. I look forward to teaching and learning from you.

Sincerely, Lydia

Concluding thoughts:

I know that there are many challenges ahead, but I am so excited to have this opportunity to teach! My students not only vary in age and fluency in English, but also in socioeconomic status – some have jobs and are very well-dressed, but most are orphans, unemployed, and walk over 2 hours to get to class. My challenge will be to design a curriculum suited to the learning styles and capacities of individual students, that also accommodates for those who do not have the time or the resources to do work outside of class. Although it will certainly not be easy, I am ready to teach and to learn – I know that just by giving a little, I will receive so much more from my students and from the experience as a whole. I CAN’T WAIT 🙂

Stop and Stare

I figured I’d include a post about all the non-education related highlights of my

Traditional Rwandan/Congolese wedding

stay thus far. So I’ve compiled an eclectic assortment of thoughts, notes, and pictures to give you an idea of what life’s been like outside of the school!

Frustrating Transportation: I confess that I only half-believed my contacts when they told me that there were “no addresses in Kigali” – but that really is the case. The city is divided into regions and when you give directions, you state the region and then a nearby landmark. For instance, if I wanted to go home, I would tell the taxi-moto driver “Kimihurura, Topsec,” and after haggling the price down to 500 RWF (less than $1 US), I would further direct him down 3 blocks to my house. Imagine though, coming to the city without knowing any landmarks – it was virtually impossible to get around, so I was a huge baby for the first few days and had to rely on my wonderful friends, Belise and Ioana, to learn the ropes.

Authentic Rwandan food is hard to come by - Thank you, Belise!

Signs of Change: I knew before coming here of Rwanda’s intended shift from French to English and its investment in primary education to that aim. However, it is the little things that say the most about the transitional changes that are occurring – little things like how the older taxi cars seat drivers on the right, but all other cars have drivers seated on the left. Or President Kagame’s decision to give his speech in English on the opening night of the Pan-African Festival of Music (FESPAD). Or the countless numbers of English-speaking muzungus (means “white-person,” but is used broadly for all foreigners) that we’ve met here already – a family from a church in Virginia (the father was a NU alum!!!), teachers from M.I.T., researchers from the University of San Francisco, a PeaceCorps worker from Cornell, U.S. Army soldiers, plus countless numbers of people from England, Norway, Sweden, etc. Or even the cuisine and the music – I hear “I Gotta Feeling,” “Break Your Heart,” and songs by Jason Derulo, Beyonce, Akon, etc from passing


cars, and the majority of restaurants I’ve been to serve french fries with Heinz Ketchup. DEFINITELY not what I expected – my students are more familiar with American hip-hop than I am! It’s been bizarre, to say the least, to see the amount of American influence in Kigali much less the value that is associated with American culture and products.

Culture Clash: A couple things that I’ve learned thus far:

  1. people care a lot about appearance – not just what you’re wearing, but also your hair and your NAILS. Living in Kigali is not cheap. A drink at Papyrus cost me $9. The costs of food, clothes, and toiletries are comparable to the States. But then there are anomalies, such as manicures, haircuts, and hemming that are dirt-cheap here – I’m guessing because of the demand. Many Rwandese women in Kigali go to the salon multiple times a week. I got a manicure yesterday for less than $3 and I was told that I could get my hair dressed for the same price. I’m not complaining 🙂

    MLK, Obama, and Kagame on one t-shirt

  2. don’t take pictures of people/don’t even look like you’re taking pictures of people – I stopped once to take a picture of a billboard with a political message, but the moment I got my camera in focus, a bunch of the men who were sitting beneath the billboard got up and started approaching me with angry gestures. I was terribly embarrassed and ashamed about the misunderstanding and I made the sobering realization that, if I were totake a similar picture in the states, Americans probably wouldn’t think twice that I was taking a picture of the billboard; but because of the numerous tourists and Westerners Rwandans have encountered who have snapped pictures of them (for instance, the all-too-common photo of the sad and malnourished African child) Rwandans automatically assume that the picture is being taken of them and take offense. 

A (Changed) Perspective on Politics: If the picture on the right is any indication, Kagame is a big deal here. His picture is EVERYWHERE – on bumper-stickers, framed on the walls of offices and classrooms, printed on pins, t-shirts, mugs, etc. I came to Rwanda strongly critical of Kagame’s government, which has stifled expression and prevented the rise of any real opposition. However, the more people I have spoken to and the more I have come to learn about Kagame and Rwanda, the more I realize why people love him and why 99% of the

2010 FESPA - Kagame gave a speech right there!

population will probably vote for him on election day. It isn’t that people don’t realize that the government is more of a benevolent dictatorship than a true democracy, or know that Kagame is spending most of foreign aid on the army when the majority of the population survives on barely $1 a day – no, it’s because people are willing to sacrifice civil liberties at the expense of stability and security. No leader is perfect, and granted there is a lot at fault in Kagame’s presidency, he has also accomplished a great deal of good for the country with his efforts to universalize primary education, provide every low-income family with a cow, and give every student a laptop. In addition, Kigali is clean, organized, and is working toward having the fastest internet in East Africa. People say that they are happy and they love Kagame … because they do. This is something that I will have to continue to mull over and learn more about – TBC.