There’s a whole lot of Swaziland and no Rwanda going on in this journal.
I need to fix that.
We landed in Rwanda in September. We gawked at how green everything is.
We stayed with a Rwandan host family for three months. Our host father was a very thin, heavily wrinkled man with friendly eyes and a large smile. His first words to us were, “I am very, very old, but in my heart, I am a young, young boy.” He then proceeded to give us our first language lesson, which consisted of pointing to almost every part of his body and repeating the words for the body parts over and over again. I think we might have learned the word for “butt hole,” but I’m not certain.
We had more trouble than we anticipated with Kinyarwanda, which is a deceptively difficult Bantu language. We learned how hardworking and industrious Rwandans are. The farmers work in their fields from the moment the sun rises until the sun sets, and the men and women work side by side together, which I really like. We got through three months of training and model school, which was “practice school” to prepare us for being actual teachers in the Rwandan school system. We had a lot of food poisoning. And then in December, we moved to our permanent site, a misty mountain village in Northwest Rwanda, between Musanze and Gisenyi.
We became good friends with one of the local Rwandan priests. He moves from parish to parish around Rwanda and stays long enough to accomplish a development project or two, in addition to his regular duties as a priest. He is kind and thoughtful and funny and welcoming and we absolutely love his company. He, along with our fellow teachers and my headmistress gave us Kinyarwanda names. My name is Teta, which I was told translates to “We must spoil her because she is much, much loved” and Tristan’s name is Hirwa, which means “Lucky.”
During one of our first evenings in our new home, my headmistress paid us a visit and gifted us with a massive sack of potatoes. She squeezed me tight.
“I’m so happy you are here! You may visit me in my house whenever you want. Please, if you are ever lonely, you may come and sleep at my house whenever you want.”
A teacher from my school translated for her, as she only speaks French and Kinyarwanda. The school system in Rwanda changed from French to English only a few years ago, so most adults (even the highly educated ones like my headmistress) do not have much knowledge of the English language.
Shortly after we arrived in our village, I started feeling sick. Sick in a really gross way. I told myself that I needed time to adjust to being in a new place and went about my business as usual. We worked on putting our house together and unpacking our things. On Christmas Day, we went to mass at the Catholic Church in our village. We were doing the thing we always do, where we try to act interested despite the fact that half of the congregation is staring at us and we have no idea what is being said because it’s all in Kinyarwanda, when I felt something wet land on my leg.
“It’s just rain,” I told myself.
Plop. I felt it again.
I knew what it was, but I ignored it because I didn’t want to believe it.
Plop. It happened again. I looked up.
People in the rafters above us were spitting on us.
“Tristan,” I whispered. “The people above us. They’re spitting on us.”
I left the church, hot tears filling my eyes. I stood outside, thinking. Some of the people in our village were more than happy to greet us and talk to us, but the majority seemed wary. They didn’t trust us. They didn’t respond when we greeted them and they mocked us when we tried to speak Kinyarwanda, but they had never spit on us before. I was mortified. A large cluster of children surrounded me.
“Give me money, mzungu (white person), give me money,” they repeated.
I was too upset to laugh it off and give my usual response of, “No, YOU give ME money.” I went home and cried. I missed being a valued member of a community. I missed being respected. I missed my family. I missed not being treated like an animal. I didn’t know what to do. I was used to responding to sexual harassment. I didn’t know how to respond to people spitting on me.
Our village is gorgeous and difficult at the same time. We are located at one of the highest points in the country. We can see the volcanoes on clear days and our home is on top of a large hill, overlooking a massive green valley. It’s breathtaking. There is a beautiful cemetery in the valley, which is the resting place for some of the people from our village who were murdered during the genocide. The genocide, or the “g” as we call it here (because it’s an extremely sensitive topic) affected the entire country, but dealt a more devastating blow in certain areas. I’ve been told that our village is one of those areas. The former President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, is from our village.
His house is located near my school. Our village was supposedly a hard hit area both during the “g” and in the invasions and violence that followed in the time after the “g.” I think that some of the people in our area are closed off and distrusting because of the horrible things they’ve experienced.
It all hit me at the wrong time. Feeling sick made it difficult for me to muster up any positivity. By the time school rolled around, I was too sick to teach. I went to Kigali numerous times for lab work that was always inconclusive. I was asked if I was depressed. Well, yes, you’d be depressed too if you couldn’t control your bodily functions. Things went on like this for about three months. I felt homesick and sad. I felt sad because I wasn’t doing anything. I felt sad because I practically lived in my pit latrine, which meant I was having absolutely no interactions with anyone except Tristan. I was eventually given treatment for amoebas, which had previously been avoided because they had no idea what the heck my problem was and treatment for amoebas is notoriously unpleasant.
It worked. After I finished my treatment and killed whatever was living inside of me, everything seemed to turn around. I had energy. I could leave the house.
We took a much needed vacation during the school break to recharge our batteries and adjust our perspectives. We spent two weeks in beautiful Thailand and had an amazing time (more on that later).
We arrived back to Rwanda for our in service training. It helped us refocus and we returned to our village, cautiously optimistic and ready to accomplish something. Things are slowly progressing and getting much better. I am teaching the equivalent of 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English Communication Skills at a Catholic boarding school for girls. I have about 240 students. Tristan is working at his school to organize the library, establish a functional check-out system, fix several broken computers and set up a computer skills class. I’m getting to the point of where I think I can do this. And be happy about it.
We focus on appreciating the little things. The shop owner who we buy bread from, who will occasionally throw in a few free pieces with a smile. The women who know me by name and watch me clumsily descend the slippery rock steps down from my school, yelling out “Komera!” (“Be strong!”) with each step because they’ve watched me trip over myself/fall down so many times. Our friend, Emile, who occasionally walks with us around the community and outlandishly yells at people who don’t respond to our greetings or who insist on calling us Mzungu instead of our names.
“HEY. MWIRIWE.” (GOOD AFTERNOON.)
“AMAKURU?” (HOW ARE YOU?)
“OYA MZUNGU. YITWA RAHSHELI. YITWA TREESTAHN.” (NO MZUNGU. HER NAME IS RACHEL. HIS NAME IS TRISTAN.)
And my students.
My students are my favorite part of being here. I teach five classes. Two 10th grade, two 11th grade, and one 12th grade. They range in age from 16 to their mid 20’s. I absolutely love teaching older girls. I established on the first day of class that questions are good and they are free to ask me whatever they want. Students were typically discouraged from asking questions in the Rwandan school system. This is starting to change, but is still regularly practiced in most locations. Most kids don’t ask questions because they’re afraid of looking stupid. I think I’ve managed to convince my girls that questions are good because they seem to have no shortage of them for me. They’re very curious about American culture and the opinions of the strange American girl who teaches them.
Some of my favorite questions so far:
“Does Lady Gaga have both sexes?”
“What is the Illuminati?”
“How many machines do you have to do things for you in America?”
“Which machine is your most loved machine?” (They forget how to use the word “favorite.”)
All of my students are very sweet, especially my 10th graders. They always tell me how much they enjoy their classes and have asked me to teach through their study hours on more than one occasion. They love debating and I feel like I can almost see their thoughts moving rapidly around their heads like cogs in a machine, as they rush to think of how to make their next arguments. They ask to discuss gender and women’s rights fairly often and many of the girls are quite passionate about it. We recently had a debate about whether or not a woman would make a good president and I taught them about the current President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who is also the first woman president in Africa. At the end of their debate, I shared a comment that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame made recently. He said that he wanted the next President of Rwanda to be a woman. My students’ faces lit up. I often see excited little fires burning brightly behind their eyes when we talk about equality and gender. These girls are going somewhere and I love being part of it.
ps: I’m going to update on a more regular basis now that I’m not hosting any parasites and I’m actually doing something of value with my time.