Monday, November 8, 2010

Last place, First

In the past few months, I’ve become more involved with a Peace Corps Rwanda project called Books for Peace, which is aimed at providing books to start or enhance libraries in volunteer communities. The project was initiated in Rwanda with the first group of health volunteers two years ago, in conjunction with the Books for Africa organization. For me, what first started as an agreement to take over a single school book order from one volunteer in my area, has grown into a 15 school project throughout my district of Nyamagabe. After meetings with the Executive Secretary of my sector (Gasaka) and headmasters around the district, this project is starting to take on a life of its own. My organization has noticed this as well, assigning me to an additional (unofficial) counterpart, Venuste, who is AEE’s Education and Health Services Officer. Sharing the responsibilities with me is a Peace Corps volunteer in my group who has been assigned to the organization Caritas, here in Nyamagabe. The journey is just beginning for this process, which I can already tell is going to be a long, interesting ride.

The first step in this process has been to visit schools and talk to headmasters and teachers about their needs. Riding the hype of one school in town which received books already, we’ve found many schools interested, ready to get books into their schools or libraries, and also ready to pay their part. In order to get books, schools must cover 25% percent of the cost in order to show community ownership. Although this seemed like a daunting figure at first it has turned into an insignificant hurdle, with most headmasters ready to cut a check by the time our meeting is wrapping up. Before leaving a school I always ask for a tour of their library (if they have one) in order to see what space, shelving, library system, etc they have in place already. Some schools have five books on an empty shelf, while others have a librarian on hand with 3 or 4 bookshelves categorized and numbered. These visits have proven to me that getting the books here is not the end to the means, but that much more will have to go into these schools in order for kids to benefit from these books.

Wrapping up this first step last Thursday was a quintessential example of how work gets done around here. Venuste and I had visited most of the schools around town so it was time to take a trip to the last few remaining schools near the edge of our district, about an hour and a half moto ride away. We got up early and hit the road by 7:30 in order to make sure we’d have enough time to visit all four schools, take tours, ask all of our questions, and get back to Nyamagabe before the rains of umuhindo (short rainy season) came in the afternoon. On our way out of town, we made one last stop at the gas station, which was apparently out of gas (Not a very good business model, eh?). Thinking that our trip may have to be postponed, Venuste unscrewed the gas cap, shook the moto back and forth, and confidently claimed, “We have enough.”

As we traveled up, down and around the hills of Nyamagabe, I was able to catch amazing views of the green peaks and valleys that surrounded us. Interruptions to the scenic route were only due to my urge to watch the rocky, rough road ahead of us. While we bounced back, forth, and side to side, I had a firm grip on the back of the moto 100% of the time, while my butt was actually on the seat around 50%. Before we knew it though we were in Musange, ready for a quick stretch, and then to our first meeting of the day.

Of course, we arrived at our first stop, GS Musange, only to find out that the headmaster we were supposed to meet with spent the night in Nyamagabe town, roughly 5 minutes from our office. His secretary told us he’d be back soon, and that we could wait for him if we’d like. Not knowing how long that would be, we decided to save time and walk the ½ mile to another school we were going to visit, to get our legs moving and to save on gas. After walking through a field of cows and hopping over a stream, we arrived at ESECOMU school, only to find the accountant there to bear the bad news that the headmaster of his school was gone as well. Should I be frustrated? If nothing else, I’ve learned that if these things annoy you too much, working in Africa is not your cup of tea. The accountant embarrassingly admitted that he did not have any tea prepared, but offered us a place to sit at his friend’s house nearby. After hiking up a small mountain, we arrived at a mud house surrounded by banana trees. We politely sat down and Venuste completed the customary questions about family and work that comprise Rwandan ‘small talk’, while Rwandan news was blaring in the background on the radio. After the brief exchange of pleasantries we were proudly handed a family photo album to look over while they prepared tea. Unfortunately, by the time the tea was ready, the headmaster from the first school we visited called and was ready to meet.

The GS Musange headmaster was eager to fill out the form and show us the school “library” which sits at the back of his office. He informed me that he knew of Peace Corps because he was approached to work with a volunteer from the new education group that is currently in training. He is securing a house for them now which will be ready to in January, after they swear-in. The PCT doesn’t know it yet, but a project will be waiting for them upon arrival, as sort of a welcome gift from us here in Nyamagabe.

After wrapping up our first meeting, we headed out to ESECOMU again to meet with the headmaster who had just returned. He too was delighted at the possibility of receiving books, and was proud to show us his library, which he unfortunately didn’t have the key to because the librarian had left with it. Peering through the broken windows, I saw four shelves, two of which were at such an angle, I do not know how they hadn’t tipped over already. In addition to new books, I think new shelving will be a topic in our next meeting as well.

Next stop was Kaduha, about 20 minutes away from Musange. Missing tea earlier and now approaching lunch time, Venuste and I stopped for a brief moment to have some juice and biscuits. It was important for us to get out of the public eye, in order to respect the Rwandan cultural rule of not eating in public. Finding an appropriate distance outside of town, we quickly munched down our snack and checked out our gas situation. Venuste shook the moto and once again declared, “We have enough”. So we were on our way.

At our first stop in Kaduha, we were once again faced with a missing headmaster. We were told he was at the next school we were supposed to visit so we quickly drove over in order to hopefully meet with both of them. Unfortunately, our informant was wrong, but we were still able to sit down with the headmaster of Group Scolaire Kaduha. The headmaster immediately was excited once I pulled out the Books for Africa paperwork, as he told me how he’d been in contact with the organization but hadn’t been able to get the school’s Parents Association to approve the spending. I was impressed by his willingness to take on such a large project as one school, but in the end it would have been very difficult and costly for him to do it himself. He asked me if I knew ‘Steven’ who works with BFA, and was insistent on showing me their email communication. Debating whether or not I wanted to use this opportunity to strike at the heart of the widely held myth that ‘all white people know each other’ and say no, I said yes thinking that I had actually seen Steven’s name before. My gamble paid off as the headmaster immediately was excited I knew Steven, and could now tell the Parent’s Association that the book program is real because the American said so. At first I was annoyed that my presence or appearance proved some validity to the program, but in the end if that means students receive books, I will gladly provide the muzungu stamp of approval.

The excitement was not enough of a distraction for the headmaster though, as it also reinforced the notion that he had to show me Steven’s email. I politely suggested we look over the book order forms again so that he might start putting the pen to the paper, but he nonchalantly put them to his side, while clicking ‘refresh’ on his Yahoo account. This continued for about an hour, while I awkwardly sat there, sipping my tea, while he furiously clicked refresh and told me the network must be down. My bailout option was gone as well, because Venuste was working with the accountant on budget issues related to the OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) that AEE sponsors. Finally, the internet won, never bringing up Steven’s email and forcing the headmaster to once again look at the paperwork. He asked for a few days to look it over with his teachers, but will have the form delivered to our office on Monday.
Leaving his office, I was a bit annoyed and disappointed that we were only able to get to 3 of the 4 schools after coming all this way. In addition, what could have taken a few hours including travel time, had taken nearly an entire day. As I came to terms with the fact that we might leave one school out of this order, Venuste slammed on the brakes and hollered to a passing moto. It was the headmaster we had missed earlier, so we turned around and pulled up alongside him. Venuste gave him a 30 second speech in Kinyarwanda and then the headmaster turned to tell me he’d have the form in to me on Monday as well. The irony of sitting in one office for two hours while a headmaster clicks refresh on his email while another says yes without even seeing the book options brought a smile to my face.

A little further down the road Venuste stopped and unscrewed the cap for the last time, shook the moto, and confirmed once again, “We have enough.” I wanted to ask him if we should check again maybe when we aren’t parked facing downhill, but I just sat back, packed away our notes and was ready to hold on tight.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dear Pen Friend

What would you say if you were given a piece of paper and told to write a letter to a student in a foreign country, using a language that you are just learning to get a grasp on? As part of my correspondence through the World Wise School program, I’ve decided to add an element to the cross-cultural exchange by asking the English Club at Sumba Secondary School to write letters to the American students describing themselves, their family, and their country. Now, after reading 95 letters, and hearing the stories about these students’ lives, I realize that this exchange is providing me with a new opportunity to learn more about Rwanda, through the eyes of Rwanda’s youth.

Most of the letters begin in the same way, with specifics about their height, weight, eye or hair color, and often their current marks or passing grade for their class. I’m sure reading 1.60 meters or 55 kilos will pose a small conversion challenge as it did to me, but for the most part, the American students will be able to relate. After these physical facts however, the stories of these kids’ lives that contribute to the heart of cross cultural exchange begin to take shape.

One letter describes being a genocide survivor, while another describes how during the holidays he and his brother must cultivate with their mom to earn schools fees for the next year. Stories like these are common across Rwanda, although each time I hear one it makes me sit back and think about the strength of these children and their families. Typically following the brief family introduction, the students move into their favorite subjects in school, and lastly, their hopes and dreams for the future. In just a few short paragraphs these letters take the reader from the information you fill out at the doctor’s office, to stories of survival, and finally to expectations for a better life.

I don’t expect the American students to relate to cultivating cassava, but that’s exactly the reason why I want these students to exchange letters. I hope the similarities and differences in the students’ lives and letters will provide a new learning opportunity, just as it did for me.