Rwanda Reflection – Laura Oehlman

 This summer I had the incredible experience of spending five weeks in Rwanda with Books & Beyond. I had the opportunity to travel around the country, learn about its culture, and teach at a summer camp at Kabwende Primary School in Kinigi. Throughout the trip, there were many occurrences that greatly affected me and many learning experiences.

 When we first arrived, I was shocked by the beautiful landscape, the mountains and valleys as well as the patchwork of crop fields that decorated the mountain sides. It was a stark contrast to the flat landscape of Indiana. Besides the physical difference, the people in Rwanda were extremely friendly and very blunt when asking questions or giving advice. It was very different being in a country where Caucasians are a minority and the relatively small amount of tourism and tourists caused us to draw lots of attention. From the beginning, we had children running up to us and crowding around us!

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 The first week we were in Rwanda we had training in which we learned how to create lesson plans, effectively communicate with English language learners, and had Kinyarwanda lessons to learn the basic words and phrases need for survival and communication. We also went to Kabwende to hand out books during the first week. It was very exciting to see how fascinated the students were with their books and some students had with them the books from previous years, well-worn and the book cover covered with newspaper or clear contact paper for protection. This was our first time seeing the school where the summer camp was to be held, and I was taken aback by the simplicity of the school. For one, there was no electricity so the classrooms were very dim, the wooden desks where the students sat were very small and meant to hold 3 pupils, and there were no posters or colorful art work displayed as can be frequently found in elementary schools in America.

We started summer camp on Monday of the second week we were there and it was a three week camp. We had 200 students attend, 100 of them from P-4 (4th grade) and 100 from P-5 (5th grade) we taught them writing, reading, and games in English. One of the things that I learned about myself from working at the camp was that I can be a good follower and that I don’t always need to be the one to plan things and be in charge. During camp, I worked with a fellow IU student, and we were similar in that we were used to leading and deciding what should be done, at first we had small disagreements but quickly I learned that her ideas, although different than mine, were very good and just as effective. From then on, I let her plan and lead, adding comments or input every once in a while. After the first couple of days we got really good at working together and getting things done. The summer camp also allowed me to get to know the students very well and learn about the education practices in Rwanda. For the most part, education in Rwanda is about memorization and regurgitation, students are expected to copy what the teacher writes on the board, memorize it, and be able to recall it on oral or written exams. Our camp focused on critical thinking and being creative. When writing, the students were encouraged to be creative with their stories, including a problem, solution, interesting characters and dialogue between them. In the reading portion, students had to perform skits and answer comprehension questions, something they were not used to and struggled with. The kinesthetic portion, or games, was especially new to them and they did not realize that they were learning English while having fun! To end the summer camp, we had a ceremony to which parents were invited to come and we showcased what the students had worked on. The students presented skits in English, and since most parents did not speak English, we did the skit in Kinyarwanda for the parents. It was an amazing way to end the camp and I enjoyed meeting the parents and speaking with them using the little Kinyarwanda that I learned!

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 Besides the camp, we got to explore Rwanda. We visited Lake Kivu on the western coast between Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo and learned about coffee production in Rwanda. That was fascinating because we got to follow the entire process, from sorting out the good coffee beans to roasting and grinding the beans to make delicious ikawa (coffee). We also went to the Nyungwe Rainforest in the southwestern part of the country. While there, we saw monkeys, birds, interesting plants, and numerous beautiful waterfalls. We had the opportunity to hike through the rainforest and do a slightly terrifying canopy walk. The drives through the country were enjoyable as we got to see the beautiful scenery of the mountains and fields.    

            Throughout the trip, I learned many lessons about myself, Rwandan history, culture, and language, and I was able to meet incredible people that although I will never see most of them again, they have had an incredible effect on me and made my experience absolutely incredible.

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The amazing people I met on my journey through Rwanda:

The Kabwende teachers Julienne, Jolisse, and Emanuel: They taught me numerous songs in Kinyarwanda, additional words in Kinyarwanda, and answered any questions I had. They were crucial to getting the students to do what we wanted them to, translating directions and keeping order in the classroom.

Rafiki, the chef at the Kinigi guest house: He taught us how to make Chapati!

Abdu, our driver: Abdu gave us all our Kinyarwanda nicknames, drove us wherever we needed to go and was there to protect us, going as far as using his detective skills to retrieve Jennifer’s backpack when it was taken. 

Simon Pierre: He was the person I would go to if I ever needed a question answered, he gave indirect detailed answers with long stories to go with them. He also greatly enjoys dancing, performing for us multiple times and teaching us some moves!

Nadine: She taught me how to wrap a baby on my back like the Rwandan women, taught me numerous songs, and invited me to her house a couple of times to meet her daughters, Rebekah and Abigail, and the rest of her family.

Isaac: He led Kinyarwanda lessons so that we could communicate a little and at least greet people in Kinyarwanda. He also answered any questions I had and translated for us. 

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