A missed flight, sixteen hours of sitting in an airplane, a cancelled flight, and a ten hour car ride from Washington D.C. to Indianapolis, all came between me and where I am now sitting in a library in Bloomington, Indiana. As I sit down to describe my experience in Rwanda, a week has passed since I finally arrived back home, a little tired, a little sad and still a little pissed off about all the travel difficulties. But all those events are behind us now, and what we’ll remember about Rwanda are not the numerous problems we encountered on our journey home, but the numerous experiences we brought back with us.
What drives me to travel I have spent a lot of time thinking about, but when it gets down to it what really motivates me is that travel forces me to think outside of the normal parameters of my assumptions and perspectives. Before coming to Rwanda I tore myself up trying to critically analyze my role as a volunteer in an American service-learning project (the term ‘service-learning’ itself may be a uniquely American concept) going to what was traditionally viewed as a third-world but now more euphemistically called a ‘developing’ country. America represents one of the greatest empires to ever exist. Her reach is greater than any other to precede her. Hundreds of military bases and operations on every continent, trade agreements signed left and right mostly in favor of American corporations and businesses, an entire global financial and judicial network under American control, and – and this is where I come in – thousands of American citizens volunteering their time to teach English throughout the world.
Whether this is a true assessment or not is a matter of much debate, at least for some people. But for me it was and still is rather cut and dry. If you look at the history, look at the often horrible facts, a picture begins to piece itself together that looks none to pretty, even for a middle-class American boy whose only encounters with service have been positive. Is teaching English to foreigners in their own country a form of soft colonialism? It’s a practice that goes back to the earliest days of colonization. Move in the military, move in your business operations, and make sure the population can speak your language. The British, the French, the Portuguese, the Germans, the Belgians, the Spanish have all done it. What makes us any different?
These questions plagued me as I disembarked for Rwanda. I knew that, given this world perspective, I couldn’t fully justify going. It seemed hypocritical to even entertain the idea. But in the end I decided that, in spite of or even because of the power and privilege I know I possess as an American citizen, I firstly shouldn’t put all of my desires on hold, and secondly shouldn’t expect to be able to change the world as a single individual. Rwanda changed its language of education to English four years ago, for better or worse. By going to Rwanda, I could at least effect change at a person level, and most importantly throw myself into a situation where my own assumptions and perspectives are themselves thrown into question. This is, after all, what drives me to travel in the first place.
Arriving in Rwanda on the ninth of July, I could immediately see that, despite my personal concerns with America’s and my role as visitors in Rwanda, that the country is really in great condition and is thriving at a level many African countries are years away from. As we left the hotel we slept in the first night and drove around Kigali, the capital city, we saw development occurring everywhere we looked. Newly paved roads and beautiful buildings are rising up all over, and spots of trees and gardening speckle the city which gives off the same atmosphere of any American city. Later I would learn to no surprise that this development has come at a cost – thousands of lower-income people are being forced out of their homes to make room for more development – but at least on the surface Kigali is a beautiful, safe and thriving city.
After a visit to the genocide museum we made our way up to the Musanze province, where we would be staying and also running a three-week summer camp for two hundred children from the Kabwende Primary Center in Kinigi. In the meantime we had a few days to settle in and prepare for the camp. These days all come back as a blur, since we spent them mostly conceiving of lesson plans for the upcoming weeks, presenting our plans, having them critiqued and rewriting them. During this time we also got to know the people we would be working with: Isaac, our main translator and a great asset to the team; Simon Pierre, a disciplinarian at a nearby school and a man of infinite knowledge, who can talk your head off at any moment on any topic; Nadine, a teacher at Prefer, a preschool started by a friend of Books & Beyond, a quiet and shy woman with a huge heart, great teaching ability and an amazing help in the classroom; and of course Abdu, our bus driver, a crazy and amazing fellow who I grew closest to on the trip. Without these people we couldn’t have done what we did. They helped us as foreigners in their country in more ways than we can possibly know. And the relationships that we developed with them are for me at least what a trip like this is really about: The sharing of cultures and information that leads to enhancement at a personal and community level.
That Monday the camp kicked off for the first time. In the morning we had an opening ceremony. Speeches were exchanged, songs were sung (Our visitors they come from America/ Thank you very much e!) and we even danced a bit with the students. Despite my initial reservations, it was great to see that the students were happy to see us and excited to start learning. The first week of camp proved to be an uphill battle. The students could not speak English nearly as well as we had imagined and prepared for, and we ourselves were just testing the waters trying to develop our own teaching skills. Needless to say a lot of improvisation was needed on our part. What really made the camp possible however were the three Kabwende teachers, Jolise, Julienne and Emmanuel, who acted as translators and helped out immensely with classroom activities. To them we are forever indebted.
Over the next few weeks camp went a lot more smoothly as we adapted our lesson plans to the students’ learning styles and abilities, became better acquainted with the teachers, the headmaster Clement, and the students themselves. After a day of singing, dancing and playing games, and struggling to teach the students, some of whom could not even read and write in Kinyarwanda, how to read and write in English, I remember being completely wiped at the end of the day. Some of us were more courageous and managed to put on a happy face and continue entertaining the students as we walked each day from the school back to our bus. I found this more difficult at first and wanted nothing more at the end of each day than to go home, eat some dinner and fall asleep. In Rwanda I often hit the sack by ten and slept as late as I could. I savored sleep. But at the end of each day there was still time for a little bit of fun. In our house, which had no internet and no television we could understand, I found that we spent more time sitting around talking as a group. I knew this about myself before the trip, but I came to realize even more how much I love not having the internet. We were forced to talk with each other, and had nothing better to do than to socialize or get involved in a new book.
For me, my favorite pastime was going through vocabulary lists of Kinyarwanda words, learning a new grammar point and putting them into practice with my Rwandan friends. My Kinyarwanda studies were extremely rewarding. I saw my studies as another way to bridge the gap between our two cultures, but also as a way to lessen the guilt I felt for coming to Rwanda to teach my language. I somehow felt that by learning their language as well, that I was putting a stop to the soft colonialism I felt I was apart of. All too often Americans travel to other countries with the expectation that they needn’t make any effort to learn the local language. And often times they’re right. But I feel that something great is missing when communication only goes one way. When you learn someone else’s language, you are able to connect with them more deeply, and you become able to understand them on their own terms (pun intended). If I had to make one recommendation to anyone coming to a foreign country to teach English or any other subject, it would be that they spend the hours needed to grasp the local language. It’s extremely difficult, but also necessary and it allows you to empathize with those millions of people around the world struggling to learn English because they believe it will give themselves a chance to succeed.
After three weeks of reading, writing, and kinesthetic activities, we asked the students to reflect on what they had learned as we reflected on what they had taught us. Their statements reflected the enthusiasm for learning the camp had instilled in many of them, the fun they had getting to know American students, and their desire to continue the camp and even extend the time spent together. On the last day of camp we had a closing ceremony where the Kabwende students demonstrated what they had learned to their parents. Several of them read stories they had written, two groups performed a skit in English adapted from The World Is Our Home, “The Caterpillar That Wanted to Change”, and together we played a short game of Simon Says and sang a song together. As we left Kabwende for what for many of us could be the last time, I walked with the children towards our bus singing “Iyo ngwe”, a Rwandan hunting song our friends had taught us, in unison with the students. Singing with them in their own language, I felt a connection with them I had not felt before. It is moments like these that define a cross-cultural experience. Even when all words escape you, when communication is difficult, when differences in culture, in upbringing, in background, in language, in personality make friendship seem like an impossibility, nothing connects people more than singing. As we skipped along the path singing together, I looked around and saw smiles on every face I glanced at. And I noticed that I was smiling too. This is what I had come to Rwanda looking for: A chance to connect with others on a personal level, to take their assumptions and perspectives and compare them to mine, a chance to experience life through someone else’s eyes.
That same day we disembarked for Nyungwe National Rain Forest, one of the largest tourist attractions in Rwanda. Along the way we met very many tourists, and we most likely looked like tourists to all who crossed our path. But I didn’t feel like a tourist. After a month in Rwanda, learning the language, getting to know Rwandan people, sharing in a (mutual) learning experience, I felt much less like a visitor than when I first arrived. I felt connected to the country, and experienced it almost like it was a second home.
Do I still think of America’s role in the world and my own role as an English teacher as a form of colonialism? Of course. Just because it hides itself in the shadows of song and dance doesn’t mean it’s not there. I had a conversation with Simon Pierre where we discussed the loss of Rwandan culture that comes from having English as the language of education. I had a conversation with Abdu about how unfair it is that we can come to Rwanda, but that most Rwandans we visited cannot come to America. And I had many conversations with people on the trip about the problems that arise when you come to a foreign country to teach your language, when you have no grasp of the local language. These are all affects of colonization. At the end of the day though, all we can do to challenge colonialism is to discuss its existence, not to hide from it. We can recognize the good in going to Rwanda or any other country, as long as we are prepared to recognize the bad as well. Whatever the big picture may be, what we gained from the experience and what our Rwandan friends gained is what is important for the here and the now.