To Rwanda & Back- Briana Petty

As we were sitting and waiting to go to Rwanda (something you do a lot while traveling), I realized airports, airplanes, and everything about them  has long fascinated me. It is physical evidence of how connected we are and I always wonder about people in the airport…where are they going? And why?

One of the first things people asked when I told them about my trip to Rwanda was “Why there?” I’ll admit it was never on my list of places to travel to before Books & Beyond. But I have given and received so much from this project that I find it necessary to gain insight from the Rwandan point of view. I also think it is necessary to move outside of my comfort zone in order to grow as a student and a person.  I did have some minor concerns as I have never been outside of the country for an extended amount of time, but I knew I had to let those go in order to focus my energy on our purpose of being there: the Kabwende Holiday Camp.

I have volunteered with Books & Beyond as a freshman and am now in my junior year at Indiana University. At the end of that wonderful first year with the project, I hoped to go to Rwanda the summer of my sophomore year. Unfortunately, summer school got in the way, so I instead began to save money throughout the next year with hopes I could go in the future. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the Kabwende Holiday Camp took shape. I feel fortunate to have been able to be a part of the first annual Holiday Camp and feel that with time I gained a better understanding of the project and my place as a volunteer in another country.

Or travels were long, but I found them to be productive in that I was able to have several internal dialogues. Sitting on the long flight from Chicago to Brussels to Rwanda, I tried to imagine what the country might look like, but my mind drew a blank. I knew some of the stereotypes my family and friends would revert to: starving children, savannahs with zebras and giraffes, war-torn areas with machetes and AK-47’s, etc.  This led me to think about stereotypes as a whole. They are very powerful things and it soon occurred to me that is my responsibility to change them.

Each country has their own perception of America and its culture – some believe it is a land filled with ignorant people, or one of incredible wealth where everyone’s needs or met. There are many perceptions of our country and the people that reside in it, but I hope that our group has helped to reverse the practice of stereotyping through our actions and words.  Maybe some Rwandans who have come into contact with us have changed some of their ideas about what Americans are like.

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Coming back to the United States also gives me a unique opportunity to more accurately inform people on what the country of Rwanda is like. From family and friends, to Books & Beyond volunteers, sharing my experience will be a powerful tool.  I will be able to tell them stories that shattered my own preconceived notions of the country such as seeing the chaotic masses of moto-taxis and cell phone carriers in Kigali.

Each day in Rwanda allowed for new learning experiences. I fondly remember my lips pursing at the taste of my first passion fruit, the way the moto-taxis wove precariously around our coaster, the sound of roosters waking me up in the morning, and the way the kids would smile at our arrival.

Walking up the dirt road to Kabwende became part of a familiar routine, but everyday inside the classroom was different. Upon the first few days of teaching our lesson plans, we learned the language ability of the students was much lower than we anticipated. This was incredibly disappointing to me because every summer when the books were distributed, I excitedly thought “The kids are going to love these stories!”. In reality, they probably couldn’t read or understand a majority of them. Our challenge as students and instructors was to change all of our previously made lesson plans to better fir the students needs. In order to do this, we worked closely together to build comprehension throughout all of our lesson plans. For instance, when vocabulary in Reader’s Theatre, they then practiced those words through games in kinesthetics. In this way, our curriculum was made stronger and more effective than before.

Having to adapt our plans was a challenge but we gained several useful skills as teachers and students- one must always be flexible! It also allowed us to evaluate how useful our anthology has been in the past as a teaching tool and how we can better improve it for the future.  As the camp continued and I had discussions with several volunteers, organizations we partnered with,  teachers of Kabwende, etc. it became clear that there are many simple adjustments we can make to the project to even out the three branches. One weakness of Books & Beyond has been its heavy reliance on the Indiana University side of the project, and while this may not change anytime soon, I would like to see changes made this year to integrate the Rwandan members and TEAM school members more.

Helping the students during Readers Theatre.

As the weeks went on, it was encouraging to see the development in the classroom. When we first arrived, the students were very timid and seemed to be a bit afraid of speaking up in the classroom. Our teaching techniques were new to them as the teachers had never heard of group work, learning vocabulary through games, having students write answers on the board, etc. They eventually grew more confident with speaking in front of their peers in English and asking us questions if they had any. I noticed that they enjoyed competing against one another, in a friendly way, and we incorporated this into the classroom with relay races on the blackboard. It was rewarding to see the enthusiasm they had for the game, one that I had played in elementary school. School doesn’t have to be sitting down and copying notes from a lecture – I think the teachers were very excited about some new methods they could use at Kabwende.

Throughout my time in Rwanda, I struggled with the idea of teaching English in country that has its own distinct language and culture worth preserving. Colonization in Africa is something we look back and frown upon, but now, English is seen as the language of “successes” and “opportunity”.  In some ways, we impose our cultures on other countries around the world, whether we are conscious of it or not. I was unsure if the idea of learning English would be met with resistance while we were there, because I myself have questioned the result of these actions.  The students and adults alike were thrilled to learn and improve upon their English and I found that Kinyrwanda is not yet threatened enough to be lost entirely to younger generations. As a volunteer of Books & Beyond, I have had to somewhat submit to viewing the world as it is and realize that the growth of English as a means of gaining opportunity, is not going to stop anytime soon.  On one hand, it will better connect everyone if the spread of English continues. On the other hand, I fear for the loss of cultures and languages that help make this planet so beautiful and diverse. In the long run, it is hard to say what we are doing is either “good” or “bad”- I just know that these students and teachers need help transitioning to learning English, as it was mandated by their government. I am happy to see their culture still thriving and that they are enthusiastic about learning.

Travel has always been my favorite form of education. Nothing can replace the experience of new sights, smells, sounds, cuisines, and people. I know that I will forever appreciate this experience and the people I have shared it with. The Rwandans we worked with (Abdu, Simon Peter, Nadine, Jolise, Julianne, Emmanuel, Clement, Solange, etc.) showed us a kind of love and hospitality I was not expecting. Many in depth conversations about how to better the project, the world, and ourselves were had and will not soon be forgotten. I will keep in touch with them regularly and think of them often, as they are now part of my family. Above all, the relationships build between us and people in Rwanda is what gave purpose to this trip.

Nadine, a Rwandan teacher, leads a lesson on punctuation.

On one of our last days in Rwanda we went on a canopy walk. Far above the trees, in Nungeye National Forest, I looked across the bridge at hill upon rolling hill covered with tropical forest. Rwanda is called “Land of a thousand hills” and it is clear why when you drive along the winding roads or gaze upon landscape. I sat there thinking how these hills might go on forever into the distance; that if I began to climb them it would feel as if they never end. This is not unlike how I view my relationship with travel. Each trip provides challenge and opportunity with no clear view of what is on the other side. All that is certain is I will be a changed person coming down from that trek, with a passion to begin another. It is my hope that the journeys of discovery never end.

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