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.