Friday, October 7, 2011

Armed guard or trained model?

Kenya: Day 10. Horses, hills, security detail, clouds and cold beers

I had this half-written, under-developed blog post in the works about exam time.  I may decide to tell you folks all about how exam week(s) happen at my school, but now is not the time for that.  
I just looked at the clock on my computer: 2:34.  My computer is still set on Eastern Standard, but my glance-at-the-clock-then-calculate-the-time-change skills have gotten pretty sharp.  Or, I just look to see whether the hour is even or odd, then make a ball-park guesstimate.  Just now, my guesstimate was off.  Silly me, it’s not nearly 11 in the morning, it’s still 8:30.  With the less than exciting realization that this day is gonna be a long one, a subsequent realization kicked in.  I have plenty of time to catch up with the good ol’ blog.  Now, I have countless stories stocked up in this crazy head of mine, but, lucky for you, I’ve already selected one of the best to share.  
My wonderful and amazing mother braved Africa and came to visit me for 3 weeks.  We had an amazing time together!  In Rwanda, we traveled around the N and W provinces, saw gorillas, lounged lake-side, went to fancy Kigali restaurants... it was a really nice time.  Then, we went to Kenya.  I think that even if I dedicated the next 6 hours to typing about Kenya, I wouldn’t be able to cover everything.  So, let’s start small.
On our last day together in Kenya (after 11 successful days spent in the country) mom and I decided to go on a fun mother/daughter morning outing.  This ‘outing’ involved pants, closed-toe shoes, jackets, horses, saddles, mountains, heavy mist and accelerated heart-rates.  Yes, we scheduled a horse-back riding excursion.  To the top of the Ngong Hills (type THAT in your browser and google it).  I don’t know what befuddled my judgement and made me think that an activity like this could occur with no hiccups...  
We started the morning by driving to the base of the hills to meet the horses.  Rather, we were driven; by our lovely driver, Lenny.  We met the horses and the guides on the side of a road, in front of what appeared to be some sort of local government office complex.  Less than 5 minutes later, we were on the horses.  This made me think long and hard about when I last rode a horse.  I think it was in Georgia, when I was 16.  That’s 7 years ago.  My mom had horses and rode all through her childhood, so for her, this was as simple as riding a bike.  I, on the other hand, would gladly rather take the bike.  Instead, I gritted my teeth, tried to relax, grabbed hold of the reins and giddied up.  Actually, I tried to prevent my horse from doing much more than walk for the duration of our ride.  He trotted from time to time.  Those were the fun moments.  The horse, Night (named as such because he was black), did what he wanted and it wasn’t until about half-way into our journey that I felt able to give him commands.  He didn’t like to be last in the pack, so whenever he felt like he was lagging behind, he tried to go quickly and join the other 3 horses.  And for those of you who know how to ride horses, maybe you can corroborate and help me explain that posting can be difficult.  Posting, or moving with the horse, is necessary if you want to remain balanced and secure.... and I tried my hardest to post, but all I kept picturing was that scene in Runaway Bride (or some movie like that... Pretty Woman?) where Julia Roberts gets stuck on a running horse and doesn’t know what to do.  Now, thankfully, such a funny scene did not play out with me, but I’ll get to that.  So, there I was, trying to give commands to my horse, trying to make him WALK, trying to relax, and trying to enjoy the fact that we were at the top of a misty mountain.  I eventually got a bit more comfortable on the horse.  Mom was really great at helping me out.  Well, she was really great until SHE started second guessing the situation.  We were both frustrated that the horses were stubborn and didn’t want to listen to us.  But, what else can you expect?  It’s not like we were riding around the hilly Virginia country-side. We were in Kenya.  On the top of “peaks in a ridge along the Great Rift Valley, located southwest near Nairobi, in southern Kenya.” [Thanks Wikipedia!]  

Stubborn horses, quiet, passive guides, reluctant participants and misty mountains... sounds like a great morning?  My favorite part of this whole ordeal goes back to Lenny.  Lenny is a driver/ guide who works for the safari company that we organized our travels through and he helped us out by driving us around for a few days.  When we first embarked on our horseback riding adventure, he said something about having no fear because he’ll be following us in the car.  Oh Lenny, always the joker.  “No... wait... he really IS following us.”  Not only that, but he had acquired two armed guards to ride along with him.  As we walked our horses up to the top of the “hills,” Lenny followed in his car.  Apparently people are not allowed to visit the top of the hills with out a security detail.  Which really helped ease my fickle nerves.  (Don't worry, if something goes wrong and you're put in danger I'm sure the sound of gunshots will really help keep your horses calm) But, as is usually the case out here in East Africa, everything worked out just fine.  We even got some fun photos with one of the guards after we ran to the top of one of the hills (on foot.. NOT on horse).  
I can’t rightfully say I’d recommend this trek to many.  But it did create a great, lasting mother/ daughter memory.  We survived!  And, in true mom and Ally style, we rewarded ourselves with cold beers.  But [here’s a fun trivia fact for you] we quickly learned that it’s illegal to order alcoholic beverages at a bar/ restaurant in Kenya before 5 pm.  UNLESS you also order food.  So, we ordered food... mostly so we could drink our beers and talk about how wrong our adventure could have gone, and how happy we were that it didn’t.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Requesting assistance!

Here is a copy of an e-mail that I've just sent to a handful of people.  I'll try to write a real blogpost soon (something entertaining and fun to read) but this morning I'm all business.

Good morning!
I’m not one to typically send mass e-mails to a broad group of people, but today I’m making an exception.  I just had a wonderful conversation/ mini brainstorm session with my headmaster, and it’s led me here, e-mailing you for advice and suggestions.  As most of you know, I’m teaching at a small secondary school in Rwanda.  Our secondary school is part of a slightly larger “9 year basic education” school (primary school + lower secondary).  We operate as a day school: using limited resources, dealing with a less than efficient national school system and trying to appropriately allocate what little government funds we receive.  I have colleagues who are doing this all over Rwanda, so we often compare our schools (the good, the bad, the entertaining and the frustrating aspects of teaching in Rwanda).  Everyone seems to have a slightly different set-up, but there are general trends across the board.  I won’t get too much into the intricacies of the Rwandan school system at this time, but I do want to share with you an observation I’ve been able to make.  
I have a GREAT headmaster.  Really. I don’t think I could’ve asked for anyone better.  This man is a critical thinker, is invested in his students, sees things realistically, is honest and truthful and has some great aspirations for his school.  I will stand behind him and give him full support on any project he wishes to undertake (I’m sorry to say that most of my fellow PCVs have not been so lucky with their headmasters... but that’s another story).  Today, he came to me and we had a nice conversation about his plan to use technology in the classrooms.  When I told him that I may be able to find a grant/ money for the school to use, he told me that that’s not the first step.  The first step is to see what’s possible, to try and find ways to make his plan work, THEN find the money.  What a refreshing thing to hear out here in the village where I sometimes think that people see me as a walking dollar sign.  But, I have no experience with this sort of thing (grants, donations, project planning) and therefore don’t really know where to start.
My headmaster, Florian, wants to start using projectors in the secondary classes.  Currently we run on a total chalk and talk system.  This system is inefficient and is likely not very conducive to learning.  Florian had this to say:  
“We see now how students write in their notebooks. When teacher writes on a boards, the student is going to rewrite in their notebook. Many times there are mistakes [both by the teacher AND the students].  The writing is often not clear, so they will not be able to read what they write. If you try to see them in their self study, it is difficult to see what they've written. This makes exams difficult for students. So, I imagine that if teachers use the projectors, and if students have [a copy of] their syllabus, maybe they can reduce their mistakes.”
He also hopes to use the new computers at school (we just received 5 new Dells from the Ministry of Education) in a way that allows students to access materials relevant to their courses (syllabi, encyclopedia software, etc).  
His plan was to begin working on this project at the beginning of 2011, because he was expecting to receive 6 million Rwandan Francs from the Ministry of Education.  Instead, the school received only 1.5 million for the year.  So, his aspirations have been put on the back burner, but I’d like to find a way to help him.
My questions for you: 
  1. Do you have any information on where to find donated materials (screens, projectors, computer programs)? 
  2. Do you know about grants that may be available for a project like this?
  3. Do you have any contacts that you think would be able to guide me in the right direction?
  4. Would you like to help us?
Please let me know if you’re interested in assisting us.  This is a great school community that I’ve truly grown to love and I want to try to help them in any capacity possible.  If you’re interested in helping but know nothing about the above questions (technology, grants, contacts) tell me what you DO know.  We welcome any and all assistance: from moral support to monetary donations.  
I hope this email finds you all well.  Thanks for reading and enjoy your Tuesday!
Take care,
mob: 078 284 6648

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Bleeding Heart Show

[please listen to the song “Vagabond” by Wolfmother if you’d like a soundtrack for this post]
I don’t necessarily consider myself a bleeding heart.  Then I start to recount the interactions I’ve had as of late, and the way I feel about people around here.   And it hits me.  As the once popular hip hop song declares, I’m sprung.  I feel like my interest, trust, fascination, admiration and respect for the people I’m working and living with in this country grows daily.  My kinyarwanda is no where near perfect- it can barely pass for “conversational,” but even with a hefty language barrier, I am able to have intelligent conversations, fun conversations, and everything in between.  
The catalyst for wanting to begin to broach this topic via blog post?  I was visited the other evening by two girls who are in my Senior 3 class.  Calls of “mwirirwe” (good afternoon) were sounded in my courtyard around 4:00, Sunday afternoon, and I was pissed that someone wanted to come in and interrupt my reading.  I begrudgingly answered the door, and to my (pleasant) surprise, I saw two of my favorite young girls.  Kabila and Drocelle came to say hi and hang out for an hour or so.  I invited them in and reasoned that I had no cause to be perturbed (after all, I had been reading for hours before they called) and instead decided that I would be happy to be their entertainment for the afternoon.  I ended up sharing two copies of National Geographic with them and our conversations went all over the place!  We talked about serious things like HIV/AIDS, what they want to be when they grow up, the differences between industrialized societies and traditional societies, and more casual topics like boyfriends, and the difference between the words ‘like’ and ‘love.’  If anyone is a fan of kitschy teenager girl movies, then you will sympathize with me: I wanted to say something along the lines of “I like my sketchers, but I love my prada backpack.”  After instantly evaluating that such a quote would soar over my students heads, I settled for “I like this book, but I love my mother.”  Or something along those lines.  What I really should say is that I love those students.  They are always ready to talk with me, ask me questions, converse, help me organize the library and they seem to be genuinely interested in talking with me.  
I have had similarly positive interactions with my community members as of late.  It truly takes a good deal of effort to go out and “integrate” like Peace Corps demands, but I find that when I do make the effort, it pays off.  And as time goes on, it seems to take less effort on my part.  The people here know my name, they know that I’m American and they know that I’m a teacher.  I hear resounding calls of “Allisoni” echoing through the valley during my walk to the market, I have total strangers greet me as “teacher,” and I even get the snide (but well-intentioned) “umuzungu wacu.”  “Muzungu wacu” essentially means “our white person.”  Not exactly the most poetic pet named I’ve ever been donned, but I’ll take it.  The point is, the people in my community have taken a liking to me... and if they don’t actively like me, they at least tolerate and respect me.  That’s all I could ask for.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of walking home from the near-by market town in the evening.  And on all occasions, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a lovely walking companion (or 6) to talk with.  Rwandans seem to never really want to do something alone.  When I tell my colleagues that I’m alone at my home (ie, when Jane is gone for the weekend) they say “Ah, you must call someone to stay with you!”  They constantly remind me that “to go alone” is not as good as “going” (read: walking/ traveling) with someone else.  This is a fairly social society.  One in which you greet your neighbors, and take time to ask about the news of their family; people will talk to complete strangers if they have a question/ curiosity about what’s going on; and, generally, people seem to watch out for each other.  
Which brings me back to my original purpose for this post: the reality that I’m falling in love with this place.  No, it’s not perfect.  In fact, it’s certainly un-perfect, but that just makes me like it more.  I can notice problems that at times make my blood boil with frustration.  But then I notice that my colleagues are also frustrated and I take it that nothing is going to be perfect out here.  There are more obstacles than advantages, problems seem to proliferate on the hillsides, and there are many people who likely have no interest in developing their country.  This country is developing, however, and in my opinion, the Rwandan people are on the right track.  I can especially notice this in my students.  I would say I live in a moderately rural and isolated area.  Many folks here never leave the vicinity of our village, but it’s not so inaccessible that I don’t see people coming and going (even foreigners from time to time).  My students, who come from poor rural families, have aspirations for education and development and a earnest interest in advancing their status.  This is the sort of enthusiasm that I was hoping to encounter, and it makes me hopeful for my students futures.  
[Now, not all students have an undying desire to achieve great things- these are teenagers we’re talking about.  And, believe it or not, a teenager is a teenager- be they American or Rwandan.]
The problem I find myself arriving at, is that I can’t help these kids.  I feel that, at best, I will be able to attribute to some level of education or critical thinking, and that when they’re adults they’ll remember the crazy American teacher they had back in 2011.  But I can’t enable them to fulfill their potentials.  They have to do that themselves.  And it’s tough.  Finding money for school is a huge burden on families, and if the students are lucky enough to make it to public schools, it’s because they earned high marks on their exams (no easy feat).  Overall, I am finally becoming aware of the internal struggle that (no doubt) every aid worker wrestles with: what can I do that will actually help?  My response to this is to do what I can, remain positive, and try to be a good, strong person in my community.  But, I’m only one person, and at times it feels like I’ve got a heavy burden.  I will certainly keep on keeping on, and I will love at least 80% of the moments, but I will not change the world out here.  I suppose that if I positively affect one person, I’ve done a good job.  But that seems like chump change when I think about how many people I’m actually interacting with.  Anyway, I’m not Superwoman (nor do I aspire to be) and I’m not what we in PC like to refer to as a Super Volunteer, but I am trying, I am succeeding, and I am falling in love.  
I’ll leave you with some wise Buddhist words that I happen to agree with:
“Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

buses, taxis and motos, oh my!

I mentioned, in my last post, my affinity for riding in imodoka (vehicles).  The actual ride is only part of what makes transportation so interesting and (usually) enjoyable.  Looking out the windows and taking advantage of the opportunity to zone out and stare at the passing scenery is quite calming.  I live in a very densely populated country here, and it is VERY rare that I find quiet time outside of my home.  While a bus or taxi ride will typically start with some level of conversation, the depth and length of conversations are usually up to me.  I’ve even started to listen to my iPod from time to time during my bus rides.  This is something that I didn’t want to do until I was comfortable with the transportation to and from my house.  Heaven forbid I fall asleep and neglect to inform the driver that I need to get off the bus.... But I am now quite comfortable and confident that I can handle traveling around this country with no problem.  Since I don’t live in a large town/ district center, I have to alert the driver when I want to stop.  I have taken to saying the phrase “driver, I stop here” in Kinyarwanda, but seasoned veterans (aka Rwandans) can accomplish the same thing by tapping a coin on a window.  I don’t take any chances with that.  And on many occasions, I get the strangest looks from folks on the bus.  “Why would this young, female muzungu be stopping a such a small place?”  Many times this question gets asked aloud, and I get to answer and tell people about who I am and what I’m doing.  I actually love these opportunities and try to use them to inform my fellow bus riders about why I’m there.  

Speaking of talking about myself with a bus full of strangers, I would estimate that 80% of the time I have conversations on busses, I get asked about my umugabo.  Umugabo means husband.  Ntabwo mfite.  I do not have.  To date, all of these conversations have remained playful and erring towards respectful, and (again) I take them as opportunities.  I like to tell Rwandans that I don’t want a husband, that I’m young and want to do many things before I get a husband, and that muri Amerika, it’s perfectly normal to get married at the end of your twenties/ beginning of your thirties.  I should also add that I tend to lie about my age.  I’m 25... if anyone’s curious.  Anyone on the bus, that is.  Because (as most of you know) in reality I’m not yet 23.  I’m fine with that, but I have a hard enough time convincing people to take me seriously without them knowing my real age.  Now, I suppose that there is not much difference between 22 and 25- especially since either way, I’m a young, unmarried woman, but it makes me feel a bit more qualified.  Or maybe it’s sort of a defense.  I’m already assuring folks that I have a university degree, I have work experience, I have training in my field (albeit minuscule), I’ve been living on my own for quite some time... etc, going further into my age is just more trouble than it’s worth.  I’ve also been explaining recently, to co-workers and neighbors, that in America, I am a woman.  Here, I’m a girl.  Whatever.  Tomato, tomaaaato, ya know? As long as people see that I’m serious enough, competent, and secure, I figure I’m doing alright.
Now, this was NOT intended to be a monologue about my views on being a young, single woman (girl) in Rwanda.  I wanted to tell you some fun stories about bus rides and bus stations.  Bus options in Rwanda: if you’re super rich, you can take a private taxi (car) or you own a Land Rover.  I would like that privilege, but it’s not happening any time soon.  If you’re traveling to or from a larger town/ city, you take an “Express Bus.”  these are mid-sized, white busses that hold about 20 people, and are quite comfortable.    If you’re traveling a shorter distance, or to a remote area, you take a Twegerane: a “squeeze bus”- what Rwandans refer to as taxis.  In these lovely jalopies, people squeeze in as close as possible.  These taxis hold 16 people legally, but I’ve been in one with 20 before.  There is a driver, and a ‘conductor’ who deals with money and figuring out where and when to stop.  I can attest that these drivers clock long days.  My landlord is a driver of one of these taxis: he gets home around 8 on a good night, and leaves between 5 and 6 in the morning.  After taxis, you can take a moto, ride on the back of a bicycle taxi (literally sit on the back) or walk.  I love motos, but walking is probably my most preferred method of travel in the village.  When I walk I get to talk with people.  AND, if it’s rainy and I’m the only person out, walking in the rain provides me with one of those rare, quiet, public moments.  
As much as I rely on travel as a time for language practice and development for me, I’m also quite glad when I encounter folks who want to speak English with me.  This happens most frequently on Express busses, but it’s happened before in other vehicles- even the occasional moto.  What I can count on is that no matter what language I’m speaking, I am sure to have at least one overwhelmingly positive interaction with a Rwandan while I’m traveling.  I’ve told this to many Rwandans, but it can always bear repeating: the people in this country are some of the most generous, kind and patient people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.  This doesn’t mean that there are no “bad apples,” but not enough to make any sort of sizable minority.  
Last weekend, at a bus station in Kigali, I was buying a ticket to go home.  I was speaking with the ticket lady in Kinyarwanda, explaining to her that I wanted to buy my ticket for later in the day.  There was a nice, fancy, middle-aged Rwandan woman standing next to me who lit up when she heard me speaking in Kinyarwanda.  I’m used to surprise when Rwandans hear me speaking (attempting to speak) Kinyar, but praise and excitement is a bit more rare.  She implored me to keep trying, and let me know that she was quite proud that I sought to learn and use the language in the first place.  Little did she know, I don’t have much of a choice- if I want to be able to interact with my community members, I need to speak the language.... but it was still nice to hear.  
At this same bus station, a few weeks ago, I met a lovely young mother and her toddler.  They made for enjoyable seat mates during the bus ride, and I was able to speak English with the mom.  
Once, on a long bus ride, I was sitting next to a young, male student.  Ok, not so young... in fact he was probably my age... but he was clearly a student.  He was interested in what music I was listening to.  This was one of those bus rides where I was gearing up to take a nap, listen to music and tune out the world for a few hours.  But why not engage in a little cultural exchange before I get comfortable?  He asked to hear my music, so I shared with him.  He got one ear-bud, I had the other, and we listened together for a little while.  I played him some American punk music (a personal favorite), a bit of classic rock, some hip hop and we ended our listening party with some Rwandan pop songs.  I told him that I was tired and wanted to take a nap, and he said thanks for sharing.  This kid got a mini sampler of some of my favorites: Jets to Brazil, Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Rolling Stones, Jay-Z, Kanye and Urban Boyz.  
Every time I get onto a bus or squeeze into a taxi, something new happens.  I could write accounts of every single ride I’ve taken in Rwanda and the story would be different.  I’ll try to fill you in on some of the more interesting stories as my time here marches on.  But, if you really want to understand what traveling around Rwanda is like, you have to come see it.  Maybe I’ll get real brave one day and make a video of a travel adventure here.  Can my camera take videos?  I’m going to go find out.  Be well. 

Akagera National Park (to supplement my travel photos)

Over my last holiday I went on a few mini-vacations around Rwanda.  The main ‘attraction’ during my travels was Akagera National Park, in the east of Rwanda.  This is the only game park in Rwanda, and while it isn’t entirely on par with a Serengeti safari, I had a really swell time in the park.  I was with a sizable group of American Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) from my group: 19 PCVs total.  We slept out in the park the evening we arrived.  Now, our journey out to the park was nothing short of comical and undisputedly Rwandan.  We piled into a taxi “bus” that barely made it out there, arrived hours later than initially planned, and ate snacks for dinner by a bonfire.  There were large canvas tents set up for us at the camping local, and we were the only visitors at the park.  The only ones in that area at least.  We were all woken up by monstrous noises throughout the night: hippos milling about.  Fun fact, hippos walk around the banks of rivers and lakes during the night.  They are also potentially quite dangerous.  I’m sure that we were in extremely close vicinity of hippos that night (judging by the sounds we heard) but since it was dark, we weren’t able to see them.  We did see little hippo heads sticking out of the water in the lakes the next day, but seeing their little ears flapping on the surface of the water really doesn’t give us an accurate picture of how big these animals are.  
After a night filled with light partying by a huge bonfire (which was built by the park rangers to ensure that we would be safe from curious jungle animals) and little sleep due to loud, nosy hippos, we had an early wake up call.  Right as dawn was breaking, it began to rain.  We anticipated this. To an extent.  We were camping during the rainy season after all.  What we didn’t really anticipate was how lousy canvas tents would be at offering dry shelter.  It took nearly no time for the tents to be soaked through.  Luckily there was a large, concrete picnic gazebo between our tents and the lake, so we sought refuge there and prepared PB&J sandwiches for breakfast.  
A few hours later (again, later than we anticipated) we were met by our drivers, and distributed ourselves (and our bags) among 3 safari vehicles.  Two of these vehicles were your typical safari Land Rovers, and the last vehicle was a little safari taxi-bus.  Guess which vehicle did NOT get stuck in the mud over the course of our day driving through the park?  Yep, the little engine that could.  I was fortunate enough to snag a seat in one of the Land Rovers, but after comparing accounts with some of the other PCVs, the little engine was a fine ride as well.  
So we drove around the park for hours, the sky finally cleared up, and we got some amazing pictures.  Being Peace Corps Volunteers, we are meant to live like the locals.  I think the official jargon is something like “live within the same means as the people in your community.”  Integration is a MAIN goal of Peace Corps, so many times PCVs don’t do the traditional sort of tourist attractions.  That’s because we find ways to do them better.  We still had to pay a pretty penny for this excursion, but it was much less than it could have been.  A prime example of how we may be a bit different than your average tourist:  The car that I was in had a nice driver.  Young, spoke good English, was nice to all of us.... and it was his first time in this particular section of the park.  About halfway through the day, we came across a particularly bad portion of the “road.”  Now, keep in mind that we are driving around through a national park.  The “roads” are mud tracks through grass and trees, winding between lakes and hills.  AND we were there during the rainy season.  Our car got stuck.  Something about being the third out of three cars traversing suspect patches of knee-deep mud with less than perfect tires leads to increasing changes of getting stuck in said mud.  So we got stuck. Not once, not twice, but THREE times.  Finally, on the third time, all of us volunteers got out to help push the car out of the mud.  We got covered in dark mud, but we all ended up with smiles on our faces.  And we continued.  No problem.  I know that I didn’t want our driver to feel bad or flustered because this was clearly not his fault, and it’s difficult enough to drive through the park for hours on end.  Some of my fellow volunteers and I were talking about the various ways something like that could have been handled.  I could just imagine that some folks would sit in the car and pout and yell at the driver and be generally unpleasant.  And I was quite glad and proud that my colleagues and I were able to be cool.
By the time we were driving out of the park, we were all about to fall asleep in the car.  We drove down the road (back on the paved road, amidst civilization again) for about an hour to a nearby town.  I had a lovely, sleepy ride.  Looked out of the window and took in the sight of eastern Rwanda.  It’s incredible that such a small country (keep in mind that Rwanda is the size of Maryland) can have such a diverse landscape.  There are volcanoes and huge mountains in the north, large lakes in the west, and gradual, rolling hills in the east.  And parts of the east almost look like the subtle, rolling hills of northern Florida (or southern Ga).  
Some of my favorite times in this country have been during car rides.  Especially when I’m lucky enough to be riding in a car (or bus or taxi) during the magic afternoon hours.  You know the ones I’m referring to.  When the light is perfect and you feel like it’s ONLY possible to see beauty.  The hills get lit up.  The fields of crops begin to glow.  The sky appears clear and calm.  It’s my favorite time of day.  And when I’m never the one doing the driving, I get to sit back, relax, stare out the window and soak in the beauty.

hello there, it's been a while

I follow a fair number of blogs.  And nearly every time a new entry is posted on any one of the blogs on my list, it begins the same. “Sorry I haven’t written in so long, I’ve been _____________.”  Fill in some excuse and explanation.  My blog is no exception to the above rule.  But instead of pointing out how bad I’ve been at keeping up with this blog, or how many times I’ve started a post only to realize I want to share something entirely different with you, or how lousy I am at communication when it doesn’t fit nicely into my daily agenda- I’d like to press on and tell you a few stories about my life here.  You don’t need to know my feelings (not all of them), I’ll try to avoid long diatribes about the weather and I really don’t need to elaborate on the daily frustrations that go along with teaching (I’ll save those for later).  I’m looking at the beginnings of about 5 blog posts here that I never felt compelled to finish and share.  They are nearly ALL about the weather.  Let me save you some reading time by NOT posting them.  The weather is nice.  Perfect, really.  It’s warm and sunny during the day, and cool during the night.  Most of my mornings are foggy... which I figure is a constant in morning weather since I live in a valley.  The sunny days make me happy and make this country look absolutely beautiful.  I’m still trying to sculpt this blog into what I want it to be... and I’m sure it’s going to be an ongoing process.  Perfection is not my goal.  But I do want to be able to share my life here with all you lovely folks back home.  I’m going to try to give you some fun stories to read.  I figure it’s the least I can do. 

Monday, May 2, 2011


Workers of the world unite.
Although, as a government- employed volunteer teacher with a sweet set-up and a 14hr work week, I am sitting on the sidelines this year.  Hope the revolution is still going strong back in Tallahassee (or wherever you may find yourself)

I am sitting on my new wooden love-seat, enjoying a quiet transition from day to night, waiting for my dough to rise so I can eat some simple skillet bread and cassava leaves for dinner.  And while I’d rather be reading my book, I have been thinking about writing a blog post for quite some time, and figured now may be the perfect opportunity to do so.  A very important day passed without recognition from me, so I want to take a moment to go back to April 21st.  Does this day mean anything to you?  For me, it marked my 6 month anniversary in Rwanda.  Unfortunately that means I still have a looming 21 months of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer here, but it felt like a nice little accomplishment nonetheless.  And when I say “looming” I don’t mean to sound overtly negative, it’s just that 6 months out of 27 really isn’t a great percentage, and, well, I’m going to play the role of realist during this post.  What was nice about April 21st was that I was with all the other volunteers in my group, participating in what PC calls IST, or In Service Training.  Actually, I suppose we were on our way home after spending the better part of a week together to talk about our jobs, possible secondary projects in our communities, life, the universe and Mars.  Ok, we may not have actually talked about Mars, but I did get in some good star-gazing/ speculation with some fellow PCVs.  Although I was initially dreading getting together with 60+ other Americans to sit around and talk about teaching for 4 long days in a row, I actually really enjoyed myself and was able to leave IST feeling refreshed, with a solid list of ideas for classes and clubs at school.  
Here are some more fun facts about April in Rwanda:
  1. Most of April is a break from school. Here, we begin school in January, and we have 3 terms for the year.  Between each term there is a three week holiday, and the school year ends at the end of October.  Yes, this means I will have nearly all of November and December off from school, and yes, this means I just enjoyed the first three week holiday of the year.
  2. April 7th begins the 100 day period of mourning/ remembrance of the 1994 genocide that took place in Rwanda.  During the first week of this period (April 7th- 14th) meetings are held every afternoon at the umudugudu level (neighborhood level) and government mandated discussions take place.  Since this is orchestrated by the Rwandan government, all people are given the same list of discussion topics.
  3. Because of the break from school I was able to travel around Rwanda and see and learn many new things.
  4. Because this is the genocide memorial period, travel was difficult and I had more unexpected delays than usual BUT during these delays I was able to witness and take part in some of the genocide memorial activities.  Except for the delay caused by a tree falling in the road.  That one just led to me hanging out in a taxi eating pineapple.
As of last week, we are now in our second term at school.  I had a nice full day of teaching today, and all of us (students and teachers) are back on track and ready to go!  The rainy season is still in full force, which makes doing laundry not so fun, and makes for consistently cool nights in my part of the country.  It’s time for me to get up and knead my dough... plus, this new love-seat is still sans cushions, and sitting on wooden slats is starting to hurt.  I have much more to share with you about my travels!  I made a quick list of little happenings and anecdotes while I was traveling around the country so that I could remember them and share them with you crazy kids, so expect another post soon.
Also, tomorrow I will be chaperoning a field trip to the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali.  It will be me, the Secondary history teacher from our school and 16 students, and we will be attending a day-long seminar/ educational event hosted by the memorial staff and specialized teachers.  After this event I think I will probably have a bit to say about the genocide, and about modern-day Rwanda, so you can also expect a more serious and educational post sometime in the near future.
Did you check out my vacation photos?!?!?! Please do... you can find the link to my Picassa page somewhere to the right of what you’re reading now.  
Love and miss you all!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

April showers

Relishing in the scent of lazy Saturdays.  Fresh rain that is lackadaisically beginning to fall outside.  The small, sweet bananas on the table next to my computer, and the pineapple that is inviting me to cut into it and enjoy its sweet, tangy flesh.  The tea that has turned cold in the mug inches away from my right hand- cold, but sweet and potent and refreshing.  Recounting the sweet moments I had this week... the countless hours spent speaking Kinyarwanda; new friends, old friends, friendships that seem to be blossoming and providing countless moments of fun; journeys to visit friends; and moments at school that make me love my colleagues.  As you could guess, I’m in a great mood today... and I have been for a long time.  I’m really loving nearly every moment of my life here and I’m starting to see the value of this experience.  The above writing may be reminiscent of a cheesy teen romance novel, off the paperback section at your nearest books-a-million, but this is the best way for me to convey how I’m feeling.  And while I’m not aspiring to climb the ranks to seasoned writer, my father mentioned something to me in a recent e-mail that I’m reluctantly allowing to sink in.  He challenged me to be more poetic with my writing, in so many words.  At first I dismissed this as dad being dad, but, like most things I’ve learned from him over the years, once I allowed myself to think about what he’s told me or what he’s trying to encourage me to do, I realized that he makes a damn good point.  So I am resuming this little session of musing through my keyboard after finishing a delicious Sunday breakfast.  It’s dreary and rainy outside, more gray and white than the rest of the mornings we were lucky to experience this week, and it’s affording me a quiet, relaxing morning at home.  We’re on holiday now, and while (since I teach at a day school and not a boarding school) I didn’t get to see a mass exodus of students, all bright-eyed and excited, heading home for the holidays, I did get to see my students gear up for a break in a similar manner as myself.  If you’ve taken a look at my Picassa photo page recently, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  Yes, we teachers were just as excited and ready for a break as the students, and we were able to get in a little celebrating at school accordingly.  Check out the album titled “End of Term 1” if you want details, because, as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words.  And in this album there are 40 pictures... you do the math.  
My spirits have been incredibly high and consistently so, as of late, and I can’t foresee this trend changing drastically any time soon.  I awoke this morning with the necessary amount of motivation to undertake the task of single-handedly cooking a massive breakfast spread for myself and Jane.  Yes, I do feel that I have to muster a certain amount of gusto and energy before stepping into the kitchen here.  Light the stove, prepare the vegetables (while squatting over the kitchen floor of dirt with a dull knife and a small jerry can of water), orchestrate the cooking line-up so that food is ready in an appropriate sequence and so that when the fire is hottest you’re cooking the items that like hot fire, and make a lot of food with little ingredients.  No, this is not rocket science, but it is an art; an art that I’d like to think I’m beginning to master.  This meal was possibly the best I’ve cooked to date.  We were able to enjoy potatoes with onion and rosemary, chickpeas with a thick tomatoey/ nutritional yeast/ turmeric and rosemary sauce, banana pancakes and homemade pineapple/ ginger syrup.  All vegan, all fresh, all delicious.  The best compliment a chef can ever hope to receive is in the form of a serious recipe inquiry.  “This is good, what did you use to make it?” is always a nice gesture, but what I prefer is “tell me exactly what you did, and when I try to make this at my home and I succeed, I’ll let you know.”  And that last statement, coming from a Rwandan, is enough to make you proud for the day.  I’ve mentioned the food that we consume here to some extent, but since it comprises so much of our lives, I am nearly constantly surrounded by food, talk of food, food preferences and different food preparation styles.  Rwandans like to really cook their food- make it nice and mushy- and they are often not excited to try new food.  That is a gross generalization, I know, but I’m sticking to it.  However, I’ve been lucky enough to make Rwandan friends who like to try the food I make, and who tend to enjoy it.  Spices folks, it’s all about spices.  And variety, and experimentation.  These are things that tend to be absent from Rwandan kitchens and Rwandan sentiments toward food.  But, Jane is very open-minded when it comes to food, and is a pretty great cook herself... again, I’m so lucky that I share my living space with her.  So now she is going to be making banana pancakes and homemade syrup at home for her kids this holiday, and I consider that inspiration to be my good deed for the day.  
The end of the term was nice, but grading was on-par with a task as daunting as transcribing hieroglyphics.  I made a fairly futile attempt to do my grades on the computer.  Spreadsheet are theoretically a great way to organize data and keep yourself on track, but when you’re computer skills are limited and lazy at best, they can make your life more difficult and can be more hindering than helping.  I ended up calling PCV AJ to try to elicit his tech-savvy skills the morning that grades were due.  He was helpful, but I didn’t actually end up fixing the problems that plagued my measly spreadsheets.  In the end, what was supposed to make grading quicker and more organized, made it longer and sloppier.  Oh well, better luck next time.  And maybe next time I won’t wait till the very end of the semester to start plugging my grades into the computer.  
A little funny end of term anecdote:  We have a lovely system here for the doling out of school reports.  It’s called class rank, and it’s a pretty big deal around here.  As I sat on the sidelines, watching my headmaster stand on a desk and address all the students of secondary, I thought back to my days at high school.  At Eastside High School, and other public high schools across America, we got our report cards in homeroom, took a quick discrete look at our marks (which was usually quickly followed with panic or at least a mild dissatisfaction) and hid these little cards in our backpacks.  Friends would talk and compare grades from time to time, or you could see the occasional student approach the teachers to quibble about the point that took them from an A- down to a B+.  Point being, American high schoolers would freak if they had to endure the momentary humiliation that my lovely students are blessed with on mark proclamation day.  Here, the teacher in charge of your class (each class has a head teacher) stands at the front of class and calls off names in order of class rank.  The students walk to the front of class, retrieve their paper, and return to their seats.  This happens after the headmaster calls the top ten (in order) of every class to come stand before the rest of the secondary students.  For the first in the class, I’m sure this is a really proud moment, and it’s nice to be able to honor the students who succeed, but for these students to put up with this every semester- it’s a lot!  
I am trying to brainstorm a way to help my students build their self-esteem and help them maintain a high sense of self-worth.  While many of the teachers at my school are kind and caring and want the students to succeed, they don’t do much to help these kids develop as strong, proud, confident teenagers.  One of my goals for the rest of this school year is to find a way to found a club or group that is geared towards helping my students develop confidence and to help them feel empowered and motivated.  This is not a task that has a quick fix, nor is it something that will produce results that I will necessarily be able to see, but this is something that I feel strongly about, and that I hope to be able to do.  All of the PCVs in my group (Education 2) have a big conference/ training in a few weeks called IST (in service training), so hopefully I’ll be able to get in some brainstorming there, and will return to site with ideas on how to make this little goal turn into reality.
I know this blog post is a little spastic and disjointed (wouldn’t be me if the case were anything but) so I apologize.  I’ve just a few more things to add.  Last weekend I began to make a little list of happenings...  So, here you go!  Now you’ll be able to get a bit of a better idea of what I’ve been up to:  
Good things:
  • visit from PCV Katie (girlfriend weekend!) and subsequent visit to PCVs Andy and Carina.  
  • girly nail painting.  with Americans K and C and also with Rwandans Clem and Jane
  • attempted regional meeting... turned into 3 awesome lady PCVs hanging out for the better part of a Saturday
  • walking home Saturday night... after dark! scandalous! we walked only a short distance then got a ride, but still, it’s not often that I’m able to be out and about in the evening
  • improving culinary skills on the imbabura (charcoal stove)
  • “spring cleaning” of my house and an inspiring rearranging of furniture
  • HOLIDAY for almost all of April!
  • completion of grades and a celebratory beer drinking with all the teachers and staff from school
  • holiday travel plans
  • increasing popularity in my village (always nice when people know your name...)
  • visits to fellow PCVs (especially those which include my favorite Rwandan colleagues)
  • visits to Rwandan friends
  • final piece of desired furniture ordered! (pictures soon to follow)
  • I’ve been speaking Kinyarwanda more regularly... and while I’m not exactly fluent (no where close) I think I’m slowly improving
Bad things:
  • general lack of exercise lately.... thank you rain and laziness
  • hardly any students passed my exam/ class
  • grading was not the best experience in general
  • I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to how Rwandans LOVE to tell me I’m fat... I can laugh at it, but it’s still not my favorite topic of conversation  
  • I just did some laundry... and I need to do some dishes.  I think chores are pretty much not so much fun no matter where you live
  • I would like a bottle of wine to go with dinner tonight but that’s just not going to happen
  • sore throat... I hope I’m not getting a cold!
As you can see, life is good, and this probably explains my good mood and generally favorable outlook on life.  I’m hoping to have some great holiday adventures over the next couple weeks, so I’ll be posting stories and photos again sometime soon.  I hope you all are well. Love from the village. 

here's the link to my online photos: picassa photos!


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I put up a few more pictures on my Picassa. Take a look!

beginning of 2011 in Rwanda

An actual blog post is in the works... We're in the middle of exam week here, then a week dedicated to marking, then 3 weeks of vacation.  Hope you all are well!


Thursday, March 10, 2011

packing packing packing (a retrospective of sorts)

I’ve never been a light packer.  I’d like to think that I’m not entirely high maintenance and instead chalk this up to my indecisiveness.  I just want to be prepared for any and all potential circumstance, even the most unlikely.  That being said, you could maybe imagine that packing to move myself to Rwanda for 2 years was no easy feat (thank you mom for your assistance).  I think that not that I’ve done it, I’ll be much better about packing for big trips in the future, but who knows.  So far, my packing ability has not improved.  In fact, fellow PCV Katie has said that it is one of her personal missions to make it so that I know how to pack by the time we return to America.  
So, let me take you back a few months, to long evenings at my parent’s house spent playing tetris with my luggage and belongings.  Since we are the sort of family that doesn’t own a scale, I used the Wii to weigh the bags.  That, in and of itself, was pretty hilarious.  We used the Wii fit program under the pet setting and weighed the bags like you would weigh your dog... though my parents certainly don’t use that to weigh the dog.  Or do they? Maybe the cats? Ok, that’s beside the point.  We had strict weight restrictions that Peace Corps wanted us to adhere to, along with dimensions for our combined luggage.  Of course, once we got to the airport it seemed a bit less serious, but when I was still in Gainesville, Fl I was really trying to stay within the given perimeters.  Turns out that after what PC refers to as “staging” in Philly (after having to go into the bags and repack and change clothes and get ready for the plane trip from NY to Rwanda) I did some poorly planned rearranging that made my bags too heavy.  Thank god for fellow PCV Matthew Teal.  His bag was extremely under weight, and he let me transfer my yoga mat and some books into his bag so I could avoid excess baggage fees.  So, we made it to Rwanda, avoided extra fees and everyone was happy.  
In a few months Rwanda will be receiving new volunteers.  And Peace Corps sends volunteers out all over the world throughout the year.  If any of those prospective volunteers are reading, I want to share with you a few things I learned during the packing and transportation process.  
  1. My yoga mat is the one thing I am perpetually thankful for having brought.  If there’s something you love, that will help keep you you, I suggest you bring it because it will certainly make you happy.
  2. An easily compact-able sleeping bag is pretty valuable here, and will be really nice to have while I’m traveling.  I have a North Face down mummy bag that belonged to my mother when she traveled the world when she was my age.  It’s probably not as warm as it used to be, but it still works really well.
  3. Hiking boots.  This may just be my personal preference, but I absolutely love my gortex boots.  I found a cheap pair on e-bay right before leaving the states and they work really well here (although they do earn me more funny looks).  
  4. Shampoo and conditioner.  You can find acceptable stuff here (or so I’ve heard) but it’s expensive to get stuff that’ll keep your hair nice.
  5. Pants. Plain and normal pants.  Skirts and dresses are really easy to find here, but I find that many of my female colleagues wear pants to work and good pants are more difficult to obtain over here.  I’m SURE this varies based on your village- for me, pants are a-ok! (I even wear slightly skinny jeans (watch out!))
  6. Reading material.  If you like to read I suggest you find a way to bring reading stuffs with ya.  Many of the PCVs in my group had Kindles (in fact I am going to be receiving one myself in the next couple of months) and those seem to work really well.  I brought some books... they definitely added weight to my bags, but they are really nice to have.
  7. Camp towel.  I got an XL one and I use it ALL the time.  You can find regular towels here easily and for little money, but they’re just not as good.  Plus, camp towels are really great for traveling... and for the rainy season when nothing seems to stay dry.
  8. Sharp kitchen knife.  I brought 2 and they are very nice to have.  I also brought a swiss army knife.  You can (of course) find knives here, but they aren’t very good and they are expensive.
  9. Rain gear.  Could be that the rain beating down on my roof is making me think this is super important, could actually be important.  Umbrellas are easy to find here but I suggest bringing a good rain jacket.  
  10. Daypack/ Backpack.  Something to use when you have to go into the next town, if you go out to a park, for short overnight trips... again, you can find them here, it just may be easier to bring one from home.
  11. “Appropriate” work-out/ lounging attire.  I found out the hard way that shorts and leggings are both pretty inappropriate (even for sport).  I suggest track pants or looser yoga pants or long shorts.  Nearly anything goes here, but they draw the line at skin-tight lycra pants and short shorts... I guess I can understand that.
Fellow PCV Danny made some comment via facebook before we set off to start this crazy adventure that I actually found to be really helpful.  He said that you should just put everything you think you’ll need into a bag and then take out one of each thing.  Subtract one shirt, do away with one pair of socks, throw out one dress etc etc and it makes a pretty big difference.  I would say, stick with you intuition.  If you think you’re going to (for example) long for your yoga mat and regret not taking it, find a way to make it work!  Anyway, this post is a bit out of the blue, but I’m putting off writing my end of term exam and enjoying the rain and catching up on some typing.  Next on my agenda: e-mail responses. Miss and love ya.  

imvura igihe kurwa. it's going to rain.

Yes indeed, it is another rainy day here.  So, naturally I am using up almost all of my internet time by reading articles online and scoping out new blogs to follow.  It gets SO cold here when it rains.  In fact, it's pretty common for people to go home and get in bed in an effort to stay warm.  I think that pair with a cup of tea and a book (and the internet) is my plan for the day.  Yeah, yeah, at some point I'll do some work for school.  Anyway, check out this nice little article on chocolate.  This is mostly stuff you might already know, but the article contains some links to what sound like really delicious chocolate confectioners.

vegnews article on chocolate


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

ndi umutetsi. muri amerika kandi mu'rwanda!

(I am a cook, in American and in Rwanda) 

I was asked recently about what food I’ve been eating over here.  First, thank you Jill for the question.  Sorry I haven’t mentioned the food yet, I guess it’s not something I really think about including in these rambling posts of mine.  Well, it’s not all that exciting to be honest.  Let me first tell you what composes the common Rwandan diet: Rice, beans (various varieties), potatoes, sweet potatoes (not yams like in America, but real sweet potatoes), cassava (both the roots and the greens- prepared separately; also in the form of a traditional type of “bread” called ubugali), plantains (big, savory type), local eggplant (they are small and green), tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, avocado, corn (cooked directly on charcoal (on the cob)), onions, green beans, pineapple (the best in the world, I promise you), passion fruit, bananas, eggs, pasta, tea, milk, fanta and beer.  
The above are usually prepared in a few ways... potatoes will be fried- either in the form of fries (frites) or whole; sweet potatoes are also fried; cassava root is boiled; plantains are boiled and made into a sort of mushy, saucy mash; beans are cooked exactly how you would expect; all types of vegetables are cooked until they turn to mush, and most of the flavors are similar.  Overall, the food is not at all exciting, but it’s not bad either.  Oh! for the meat-eaters, you can find meat on a stick (called brushettes) or different types of meat stews.  
Getting food in a restaurant is best done in a big city.  There is a restaurant that I go to occasionally that’s in the same town I go to to buy bread.  The food there is only ok, but the folks who work there are really nice!  They all know me and like to ask about how I’m doing, which is always nice.  At this establishment you can get the buffet (full of rice, chips, beans, plantains, some nearly unrecognizable greens, a type of sauce to pour on your now full plate-o-food and a genuinely COLD beverage.  Since refrigeration is expensive and highly uncommon, getting a really cold drink every once and a while has turned to a big treat!  In Kigali you can even get smoothies!  Perfect for the occasional lavish city snack.  
I do most of my cooking alone, but sometimes Jane and I collaborate or we’ll take turns.  Every time I cook she enjoys what I make, but she lets me know that according to Rwandans, I didn’t cook the food long enough.  Well yeah, she’s right, I like to have my vegetables remain in some sort of recognizable format.  I like my meals to have some semblance of texture, and varied texture at that!  This is going to be a never-ending debate between me and Rwandan cooking styles.  
Overall, though, the produce is really tasty.  Since everything is fresh and natural, this food is the perfect blank canvas.  And, thanks to my awesome parents, I have spices and hot sauces to help me create some really savory meals.  But at times I am actually surprised by just how good the food does taste.  The other week we made some Irish potatoes and they tasted so good!  I know, it’s crazy that I am praising a potato, but really, they were perfect.  Just like in any sort of farming community, you’ve just gotta know where to find the good stuff.  As far as seasonal produce goes, I know there is some inevitable variance in harvest times, but overall, finding what you want is usually possible.  Although, yesterday when I went to the market there were no avocados to be found.  If I can make me way into Musanze (about 1 hour north by van taxi), I can go to the best market and get tasty, fresh produce of any sort.  They even have apples there!  
So, as long as I do the cooking, the food here is pretty good.  I am able to remain completely vegetarian and feel healthy about the decision.  Hell, I’m remaining mostly vegan, which is awesome!  From time to time I will indulge in some fresh, local cheese, and I think the bread I get uses some sort of butter, but when I cook, it’s entirely vegan. 
Actually, I have a quick little story about drinking milk.  The other afternoon one of my fellow teachers popped into my house for a visit.  He brought with him a small jerry can full of fresh milk from his mother’s cow.  It was still warm... We then had to cook the milk.  I’m glad my Rwandan friends here agree with me on that- we need to cook it to make sure that if the cow has any sort of illness it won’t get passed on to us.  So, we cooked the milk then poured it into a few thermoses.  I then boldly went where I had yet to previously go- I drank honest to god, fresh milk.  It wasn’t half bad, though I will be contributing my recent stuffy nose and excess mucus to the milk drinking.  But, it didn’t hurt my stomach and it tasted ok.  We added some sugar (in true Rwandan fashion) and Jane and I sat drinking our hot, sweet milk.  I mentioned to her that I liked it and she said “well, if you like it we can get Juvenal to bring us milk every week.”  Nope, I told her that I liked it as a special thing that we indulged in every so often.  I didn’t share this with her, but I’d be happy to keep the milk drinking to a twice a year minimum.  It was ok, I’m glad I tried it, but I’m not trying to turn milk into a major dietary staple.  (Warning- vegan ideology to follow).  I am able to get good food most times, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to maintain a super healthy diet.  Logistics just make it a whole lot more difficult to remain as healthy here as I could be in America.  I still firmly believe that I don’t want to depend on another living create for my health, and I think that I honestly don’t need to.  But, I do eat the occasional egg (less now than I did during training) and I indulge in the every-so-often cheese product and bread made with milk or butter.  And, like I just mentioned, I will share a glass of warm milk when the occasion requires.  And I’m ok with making these small diet changes.  I know the cow who’s milk I’m drinking, the chickens who produce the eggs we consume are always clucking around our school grounds and the dairy products used here are manufactured at local establishments using local ingredients.  Also, I would feel like a total prude if I didn’t try some new things here.  This is not changing my ideology, just allowing me to experience some new things (like fresh milk).  Some of you may think that I should try any and every food that I’m offered, but I am going to draw the line at meat.  No thank you.  I don’t think I’ll ever eat that stuff again if I can avoid it.  And fish?  This country is land-locked baby... and being from Florida makes you a potential fish/ seafood snob.  If it’s not super fresh, count me out.    On the other hand, some of you may scoff at my lax food consumption practices.  To that I say whatever, I feel good about the choices I’m making.  I feel like I am remaining fairly healthy while simultaneously experiencing new things and acting in ways that allow me to assimilate.  I don’t mean to jump to the defense, just trying to explain my thoughts a bit.
Anyway, that’s my take on the food here.  Perhaps a little inconsistent, but that’s how I like it.  But, please be aware, that my soon to come wish list consists of mostly vegan snack food items.  I love getting granola bars, chocolate and cookies from my parents- they really do sweeten my day (har har).  One thing I really miss? Vegan ice cream and popsicles... upon my return to America I am going to devote an entire day to eating vegan ice cream.  Who’s with me? :)

Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone

While I’m sure it’s interesting to read my thoughts and feelings about this African life;  get some good ol compare/ contrast courtesy of your’s truly, I would like to step away from my perceptions and emotions for a bit.  I don’t want to tell you about how I passed the time on my rainy day painting my toe-nails and watching Indiana Jones (which may or may not have actually happened)... not now.  Now I want to talk a bit about my job.  My primary assignment as a Peace Corps volunteer is to teach English to Secondary School students.  I am attempting to do exactly that.  I’ve written a few e-mails recently that explore the theory that I will be the one learning in this situation; I will be the one experiencing new things everyday, adapting my habits and experiencing growth throughout my time in this country.  I think this is absolutely true and relevant.  But, I am also here to be a teacher, to try and facilitate some sort of exchange.  Already, I have been shocked into realizing just how different my learning experience was from those of my students.  In the states we get taught at an early age to think for ourselves, to develop our own thoughts and opinions and to express ourselves in the ways we desire.  Now, as we all know, the education system in the states isn’t perfect, but it does lead to the students producing varied responses.  A prime example of this: the other day, PCV Keira (my closest volunteer neighbor) was over, and we were opening packages from our families after she retrieved our mail.  Her mother teaches 3rd grade in Washington, and she had her students write letters to Keira.  Not only were these adorable, they were varied and individualized.  Some kids wrote about cakes, some wrote about stars, some wrote about Keira’s family, some about Africa... and even the ones that were extremely run of the mill were at the very least worded differently from the others.  Over here, when we assign homework that is meant to be creative, meant to try and push the kids to create individualized response, we get the same thing written on 50 different papers.  These kids grow up on bland note copying and rote memorization, and while they are great, intelligent kids, getting them to produce creative responses is like pulling teeth.  Every once and a while a student will surprise me with some elaborate tale that shocks even the other students, but for the most part, these kids are on auto-pilot, writing what they know to be acceptable text book answers.  
The kids I teach are smart, and many of them are quite motivated, but they are reluctant to step outside the box.  Well, that may not be true... it’s probably not reluctance keeping them confined to the box, but rather fear and lack of training.  If these kids were told that they must do things a certain way, then they are going to continue on in that manner until something (or someone) forces them to change.  Enter Allison, their zany American English teacher, with her crazy ideas, difficult to understand accent and rule-bending propensity.  I’m not saying that I’m going to totally rock these kids worlds, but I am already asking them to change their classroom manners.  I want them to SPEAK LOUD and I request this is a LOUD voice so they get the idea.  I start class with a stretch session and a request to “get ready for English class.”  We do lots of group and pair work, and the notes I give them aren’t perfectly copied from a text book.  I don’t want to derail them and go to extremes to make class hard to follow, but I do want to help expand their horizons.  
I am running into my fair share of challenges over here, and as you may expect, I’m no were near perfect at this job.  Once again, dear ol’ mum recently told me exactly what I needed to hear; this time via e-mail. “Hope the week continues to go well for you. It really takes a while to adjust to the dynamics of your classes and to adapt your teaching methods. Every class is different and what works for one might not work for another. Continue to work hard -(it will pay off)- you are making a difference in your kids lives and they are counting on you! You make me proud no matter what!!”  Thanks mama!  And, while this may be the same thing I’ve been told countless times since coming here, it’s always nice to hear.  As much as I don’t want to claim to be making an impact on the lives of my students I’m sure that in some ways, for some students I am.  In the very least, since I’m the first American that these kids have really interacted with, they will remember me for that.  And if I can leave them with one small piece of wisdom or helpful information, I’ll be happy.  I have many grad goals for my teaching practice, but hey are still in a fragile sort of developmental stage; not yet ready to be shared with the internet.  
I mentioned in the previous post that we avoided a surprise holiday yesterday.  These crop up all over the place, and if it’s not a surprise holiday keeping us from class, it’s an impromptu meeting or some administrative task that needs to be completed.  Today I walked into my Senior 1 class to find no students.  They were all outside harvesting the corn that we grow on the school’s property.  Being friendly with the Secretary has it’s advantages... I went to her and said “Jane, do I get students today or will they be harvesting for the rest of the afternoon?”  We laughed about it for a moment then she went to light a fire under their butts to get their share of the task finished so they could come back in for a stimulating English lesson.  
Songs are a good class activity for these kids; and I remember that when I was in High School, learning songs was my favorite part of Spanish class (in fact, I still remember a few of them).  Notes written on the board will get copied and homework will occasionally get done.  Overall they are good at group work and pair work.  The main problems lie in our communication barriers.  It is hard for me to keep my diction and syntax in check and my accent just ices the cake... they really do have a hard time understanding me.  I am working on this but overall there is not much I can do.  Speak slowly, write many things on the board, keep a slow pace in class... It’s not ideal, but it works.  Gone are my visions of conducting classes full of stimulating discussion, conducting innovative and exciting class projects and  eliciting work from my students that is ground-breaking and inspired.  As with everything here, the old African saying applies: slowly by slowly.  The fact that these kids CAN understand 50% of what I say is pretty good.  Their ability to complete work and spend hours studying is impressive.  And the ones who are extra motivated to work hard make my day every time I talk to them outside of class.
In my Senior 3 class we are in the midst of doing a debate segment for their English Listening and Speaking hours with me.  We had a class debate on Monday; topic: no money, no life.  This was a topic that the students chose (next Monday we get to do: birth control; should it be obligatory?).  We had 4 groups of students: support, opposition, judges and spectators.  The spectators from this week will be the participants next week- the only way I could think of logically breaking up the class in to manageable groups.  I never did debate in school, nor do I know ANY of the rules or protocol that accompany “professional” debate... but I can wing just about anything over here.  And, it worked out really well.  These kids have had some sort of debate training (I think they had a small debate club last year) and they needed little guidance from me.  This is proof that all the blood sweat and tears I’m having to put into my Senior 1 classes will one day pay off.  The judges kept track of the arguments and evaluated which side had stronger points, used better English and debated more effectively, and I sat in the back of the class and monitored from there.  
Like I said, I’m not changing the lives of my students, not really.  And I’m not forging new pathways in the realm of English education.  But I am learning a hell of a lot, I am enjoying this (most days) and I am helping my students (at least somewhat).  Now I just need to find the best ways to ACTUALLY help them, and I’ll feel pretty good about this whole teaching thing.  I am certain that this is not going to be an overnight success, and I am quite certain that the only way I’m going to improve my teaching is by allowing myself to make mistakes, to try something new and to hopefully learn from whatever ensues.  I don’t want to think of this as any sort of trial run, because I want my students to benefit, but I think that if I do this correctly, this will be one of the craziest periods of time of my teaching career (which itself may be very short).  
Also, even though it’s far too early in the game to make this sort of decision, I think I am cut out for some sort of less traditional teaching.  Call it informal if that makes you happy... I really like to teach, I do, but teaching in a formal primary or secondary school setting is not my favorite medium.  Can I just go ahead and jump the ranks to professor?  Or maybe I can go back to education via museum programs... OR I can get a job at a fancy private school that has a 10 student maximum class size?  Or, I can turn entirely benevolent and continue to help the students that need it most.  Those that don’t get to go to fancy private schools or universities; those who may never step foot in a museum, yet are still motivated to try and gain a higher level of education than their socio-economic situations predestine.  Who knows... all I can do is keep on trying over here.  Trying and hopefully not failing too miserably.  
All of that being said, if you (like my mother) have any words of wisdom, great class activities, advice or coping strategies you’d like to share, please do so.  

Oh! I am in charge of the newly completed school library.  I will be brainstorming on how to turn this into a functioning resource that will remain purposeful after I leave this place.  This will probably be a bigger focus of mine towards the middle of the school year, but if you have any ideas/ hear anything about how to run an extremely low-budget and resource stripped library, let me know?