It’s still hard to believe that I went to Africa. “Going to a country in Africa” has always been one of those quests on my bucket list that I put just for kicks and pipe dreams. I mean, how was I really going to get a chance to go to Africa? I should have known ahead of time that going to college can lead you anywhere around the world, if you get involved in the right stuff. I surely did. The Books & Beyond Project is a program that I’ve been involved in the previous two years of my life, and I can honestly say that it changed my life. I look at the world; I look at people differently than I did before. The main thing I love about the project is that it truly is cross-cultural program by nature. How exactly? When we traveled to Rwanda with our New Jersey TEAM Academy school affiliates to teach in a Kabwende Primary School, there wasn’t just a growth in the students we were teaching. There was an immense development in all of us; Indiana University, TEAM Academy, and Kabwende students. We learned valuable lessons from each other’s cultures. For me, going to Rwanda changed my entire perspective of the country. Honestly, I was afraid. Even though I took a class about Rwanda’s history and culture, in the back of my mind lay the daunting truth of the genocide that happened 18 years ago. There was nothing that could I have learned that could erase that image. Learning about the state of the government was also a little unnerving for me, especially for Rwanda to be the very first country I’m leaving good ol’ America to. However, when you visit a place you’ve never been before, it changes your perspective and gives it “shoes” called experience. I realized while I was there that Rwanda is absolutely beautiful. The agricultural landscape, the hills, mountains, and volcanoes all contribute to making this country stand on its own in Africa. The people are just like us; they have dreams and ambitions as well. They have big hearts. They have national pride in themselves that challenges the pride we as Americans might feel in ourselves. I would say, going to Rwanda ended up being more than participating in a service learning project because it quickly became a journey of self-discovery and peace. For example, not only did the Kabwende students learn about writing a story, reading a script and learning through movement, but I learned valuable lessons as well.
15 Lessons I Learned in Rwanda:
- Rwanda is much more than just a country in Africa. – Western media usually depicts Africa as a suffering “country”, when in reality; it’s a continent with many countries with booming economies. The capital city of Rwanda, Kigali looks like the kind of city I’m used to. There are buildings, people dressed in a modern, westernized style, and shopping centers (the biggest one being Nakumat-Rwanda’s equivalent to our Wal-Mart). The city of Musanze (where we stayed) is a lot more agricultural and rural. For instance, you will see many cows, goats, and sheep especially in the Kinigi sector. You would also see many field workers and more people wearing traditional African clothing then in Kigali. Another thing is in Kigali there are streetlights such as “stop” and “go”. In Musanze, there are none. So basically you have to drive defensively and just make sure you don’t get in to a car/motorcycle/semi-truck crash.
- If you stay in Rwanda long enough, you will hear the latest American Hip Hop music and Rwandan music – It’s not likely that you hear an old school A Tribe Called Quest song or one of the Fugees hits in Rwanda. It’s more like the overly commercialized American music like Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Rick Ross, and others. For example, we heard a lot from this famous artist. We heard this particular song literally 50 times: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5W7DVFKrcs&feature=relmfu .It makes you wonder if that’s what they think of us. !
- Uncomfortable moments were inevitable – I have seen children begging for money on the streets of Kigali. That’s kind of difficult to get past, especially since it’s not commonplace in America. The images I’ve seen of the kids will be ingrained in my mind forever. I saw a child pushing another child in the wheelchair. The child in the wheelchair looked awfully sick. They were just there at our guest house one day and we never knew why. The children here are like little grown people. Sometimes you see 5 year olds carrying babies. I don’t know if they have parents or not. More often than not, there are times you also see kids with jerry cans full of water on their backs for their possibly for their families.
- Cheerful, young children – I wasn’t expecting to visit Prefer preschool in the Kinigi sector, but I’m glad we did. I don’t know what came onto me, but I just couldn’t hold back my tears when we saw the cheerful kids playing in a field. It was a moment that I cannot fully describe to you because if I did, I wouldn’t do the moment justice by a long shot. We played with the preschoolers for a while. It was a little strange because I wasn’t used to seeing kids look like that. Some of them had snotty noses and were dirty. That turned out to really be a minuscule factor, because as soon as I started playing to the kids and practicing saying “Witwa nde” (“What is your name?”) and “Nitwa Aaricka” (“My name is Aaricka”) to the kids, nothing else mattered.
Most, if not all of the children in Rwanda were extra friendly. You can tell that the children were fascinated by people that look different than them. They were so happy to see us, as though they were anticipating our visit. When our big coaster whizzed past the neighborhoods, you see the kids waving and the mother’s peak in with curiosity. You hear whispers from the adults, and louder tones from the children, saying “Muzungu! Muzungu! Muzungu!” Why do they feel the need to shout out “white person” at the coaster? I don’t really know. My best explanation is because of the anomaly of seeing someone different than themselves in their country. This is one of those rare times that my peers are in the minority.
- All it takes is one book…- As I looked around at my future students I noticed that they were all attentive and focused on the story we read them after we handed out the new Books & Beyond anthologies. It helped that we had Isaac, one of our Rwandan assistants for Books & Beyond who translates back and forth the two languages, Kinyarwanda and English. I loved handing out the books to the kids; they were gracious to receive this precious gift that will become a huge part of their education. We read Khaffeon and Priyanka’s story and we read a story from one of the Kabwende students who were in the audience. His story was called “Everyone Has a Talent” and it was about a young boy who was inspired to become a teacher. We had to clap for him for such a great, encouraging story. The boy smiled shyly at us and looked down in humility and possibly embarrassment. We told him, “Murakoze cyane!” Thank you very much! I met some of the teachers at Kabwende and they seemed very ecstatic about us being there. They seemed so passionate about teaching in general, I love it. We need more teachers like that in America to lead the next generation of world changers.
- I am a Rwandan according to most Rwandans – I just speak very little Kinyarwanda. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten interesting looks from people. Some couldn’t believe I was an American. People either think I’m from Rwanda, Kenya, or Ghana. I think it’s interesting that they think I’m from Ghana, because to my understanding, my ancestors were possibly taken from West Africa during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Anyways, it’s probably a strange concept for Africans because they usually associate America with white people. I usually get asked either, “You speak Kinyarwanda?” or “Where are you from?” and when I say, that I am from America, they laugh or continue to observe me.
- The ‘90s genocide affected thousands of people, even the ones we met – The genocide memorials we visited were sentimental and definitely melancholic. Simon Peter reflected on his lost ones with me. I learned about a little about our Rwandan friends’ lives during the genocide just talking with them. It will always amaze how they manage to be strong.
- When you are planning to teach, and you have never taught before, your lesson plans will change. That’s a guaranteed fact. – We were trained to teach our students in three areas: Writing (Writer’s Workshop), Conversation (Reader’s Theatre) and Tactile Learning (Kinesthetic). For the first day, we did Writer’s Workshop which was challenging at first but we eventually came up with a lesson plan that included teaching the students the Four Square Plan to assist them in writing a story. Our goal for them at the end of the week was to come up with ideas for their story. The next day, we worked on our kinesthetic lesson plan. Caleb, Priyanka and I, along with the TEAM school students, Jessica, Khaffeon, and A’Kayla, brainstormed through our week of events for kinesthetic. I could already see that the kids will enjoy it. We have “Simon Says” and “Hangman” (we created a version called “Bodybuilder” due to the graphically violent nature of the title.) on our game plan. Honestly, who doesn’t enjoy a good game of either? Nadine, Caleb and I did presentations on our last section, Conversation (Reader’s Theatre) and I lead a Skill builder’s presentation with Brie. Every day, Isaac teaches new words and phrases in Kinyarwanda.
- It never fails to be one of them for a day: A kid. – I took a major part in acting out the characters in a story to help them comprehend the context of the story. I believe that all six classes, both AM and PM, had fun. The students were still having trouble learning English, so I put on my “silly hat”. The students got a kick out of my silly faces and so did A’Kayla and Caleb watching in the background, chuckling behind me.
- The value of appreciation for something that they never had – as Kat, a friend of Schoolbags for Kids and the rest of us passed out the bright, sunshine yellow backpacks outside, you could see the smile on all the kid’s faces. It was awesome! They really appreciated those nice, sturdy backpacks and showed their gratitude with catchy rendition of saying, “Thank you very much!” – In song. Their song always seems to get stuck in one of our heads! You could tell that they loved their backpacks because they never let it leave their back. I wouldn’t be surprised if they slept with the backpacks! Could you imagine getting a backpack for the first time, especially if it is your first time seeing one? What makes the backpacks even more special is that each one has the students own unique name on it. It’s all theirs.
- The special people I met became a part of a honorary family – Simon Peter, one of our Rwandan assistants, can take you on an adventure every time you talk with him; he’s extremely well-knowledgeable in Rwanda’s history. Nadine, a Prefer teacher and also assisted in the camp, is soft-spoken, but is a hardcore athlete; I saw her skills when we were playing “monkey in the middle – dodge ball” with the kids. Isaac reminds me of my father – he has this wise hilarity about him; a young heart, but an old soul. He nicknamed me “umwamikazi” which means “queen” in Kinyarwanda! Isn’t that sweet? Clement, the headmaster of Kabwende Primary schools called me his sister the first time I met him. He always has a smile on his face and he is so kind. Then there’s Abdu. We nicknamed him “umubu” which is “mosquito” in Kinyarwanda because of his silliness. I also nicknamed him “igikomangoma”, “prince” because he means a great deal to me and he is my Rwandan prince! Also, our Kabwende camp teachers Jolise, Julienne and Emmanuel were great to get to know. I love them as well. I thank God for these wonderful people because they gave me that piece of home that I yearned for at times there.
- 12. There are going to be spontaneous (Pit stops and curveballs galore) moments – That’s all I have to say on that note.
- Our vacations at Lake Kivu (Gisyeni) and Nyungwe National Park (Nyungwe) were more like Indiana Jones adventures – And then again I have never had a near death experience like riding in a small boat with 15 other people in a high current (I’m exaggerating to a point) on our way to a coffee plantation, walked on a narrow canopy trail, hiked for over an hour to go to a waterfall, nor walked inside a cave.
- The food is as fresh as it gets! – We ate well every day! My favorite foods that we had in Rwanda were avocadoes, chips (also known as French fries), sweet potatoes (to die for!), tilapia, sweet, miniature bananas, fried plantains, peas, beef, rice and the thin-crust pizza in the bakery. “Igo Imana!” Oh my God! Oh…and I believe that the mangoes were picked from the garden in Eden…just heavenly.
- 15. I don’t like goodbyes – the last day of camp was tough.We had a successful celebration. I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed it. Six students got the chance to read their finished stories out loud in Kinyarwanda. AM and PM groups perform “The Caterpillar that Wanted to Change”. I was so proud of them! They surprised me! I saw all the animals in full effect! We, as in the IU students, gave the audience a special treat: we performed the play in Kinyarwanda! The kids and the adults loved it! It was a great cross-cultural thing to do. We also did a quick game of “Simon Says” and we showed the parents “Father Abraham”- which the kids love, by the way. The kids followed us all the way back to the Kinigi guest house to say the last goodbyes. They were being so silly. There was one point where they all surrounded me, a sea of chocolate faces and blue and tan cloth. I gave them a large group hug. I knew I was going to miss it here in Rwanda.
My experience has been nothing short of amazing. I have laughed more than I ever did. I have had my heart churn inside more than ever. I have taken more cold showers than I ever hoped to take. I have met the best people in the world. I have taught the silliest, adorable kids in the world. I have left my heart in Rwanda.