Monday, January 24, 2011

Rainy morning musings

I just had another surprise meeting at school.  Not surprised by it, to be honest, because these impromptu meetings seem to crop up at least once a week.  I suppose that once we get into the swing of things, we won’t have as many, and I sincerely hope that is the case.  In the district just down the road from me, where a fellow PCV lives and teaches, school has been cancelled today because President Kagame is visiting the district for some official sort of something.  I guess this is prime example of the “surprise holidays’ we were warned about.  So, the meeting we had today was about the test results of the students who completed primary school at the end of last year.  They are still not at school, because they have been waiting to see who advanced... now that we know, we’ll soon have students in our Senior 1 classes, and I’ll have a bit more work to do.  I was thankful that the meeting this morning was less than an hour long, because the three previous meetings we’ve had all lasted for 3 hours.  That’s 3 hours in uncomfortable wooden desks, listening to Kinyarwanda that I don’t understand, trying not to stare into space too overtly.  I’m lucky, and have awesome co-workers who fill me in on what’s being said when there is important or fun information, so the meetings aren’t entirely unbearable.  We had a meeting last Thursday afternoon with all of the Secondary students and teachers to talk about 2 points: sanitation and discipline.  The headmaster conducted this meeting and he ended up talking about sex (to a room of 14-17 year olds), talking about cleaning, talking about life in general... it was a bit tedious.  But, it was entertaining overall, and because it lasted so long, by the time it was finished, it was time for us to go home.  I am ready to get into actual teaching and not be interrupted everyday when I’m trying to conduct a class.  I’ve been teaching a bit, and while there have been no train wrecks, it’s not going as well as I’d like.  It’s so hard to illicit responses from my students!  This was an issue in model school, and it’s an issue here.  I think a lot of it stems from my students not understanding me.  My accent is strange, my methods are less than conventional, and I think they’re still trying to figure me out.  At least, I hope this is the problem, and it’s not totally due to any lack of ability on my part.  Who knows.... I hope that once we get into a routine here (and stop getting interrupted by meetings) it’ll get better.  Today, in the one class I taught, we went over titles, introductions and formal versus casual conversations.  Easy stuff, perhaps too easy, but a good foundation for the types of speaking exercises we are sure to be doing later in the year.  Last Thursday I taught the song “Wavin’ Flag” to a class of mine, and I think they really liked it!  I need to find more songs that are slow and appropriate... maybe you can make suggestions and increase my musical teaching cannon.  I am dedicating this week to lesson planning and trying to complete my trimester plan.  I think that the best way to feel more accomplished in my lessons is to have them planned well.  This is new-ish for me because I’m not really a big planner... I like to know what’s going on, and have loose ideas in place, but concrete plans are not my forte.  Anyway, no time like the present, right?  Now is the perfect time to try a little harder at making plans, because it could end up being really beneficial (and I’m sure my students will appreciate it at the very least).  
Over the course of this week I am going to make a concerted effort to take more photos... I do want you all to be able to see what I’m seeing, but I’ve not been using my camera because, really, it can’t capture the beauty of my surroundings.  Every time I step outside, I am invigorated by what I see.  On that note, let me finally answer some questions that my dad asked me in an e-mail months ago.  The landscape and agriculture of this country.... In virtually any picture of Rwanda, you can find terraced hills, full of small fields of crops.  Beans, cabbage, potatoes, maize, cassava and tomatoes are just a few of the plants you can find growing all over the country.  They also grow tons of bananas and pineapples and avocados and (in some regions) mangoes.  The availability of fresh, local produce is quite nice, but I think that the methods used are a little outdated.  I only say this because of what I’ve been seeing... Rwanda is the most densely populated country in all of Africa, and I would say it’s also one of the best in terms of food supply.  But, people are literally cultivating every piece of land imaginable.  Some crops are on mountain faces that appear nearly vertical from a distance.  After growing up with my parents, with weekend outings that turned into geology or forestry or general environmental lessons, I see the agriculture practices here and I think of one word: erosion.  And yes, erosion is a problem.  I don’t know to what extent, but it’s inevitable!  This place gets 2 rainy seasons a year... I’m honestly still trying to figure out when these seasons are, because since I’ve been here, the weather has been pretty consistent.  It will rain sometimes, but usually for no more than an hour or two. I wouldn’t consider the current season rainy or dry... maybe we’re in a transition period.  Anyway, point being, it rains quite a bit and it’s got to be washing off topsoil- why else would the river that runs through my town be a bright, muddy, red color?  However, this is the method that’s been in place for years and years, and it gets people fed, so there is little incentive to change practices.  Part of me wishes I was volunteering in the agriculture sector, but I guess education is a good avenue to talk about these issues too.  
So, the title of this blog... a bit on the contrived side? Well, maybe.  It’s a little anecdote I heard when I was still very new to the country and it just kind of stuck.  “Where there are banana leaves, there are no secrets...” As far as I can tell, this is applicable here.  Granted, I stick out around here, but I’ve had people greet me by name when I’m fairly certain that I’ve never seen them before.  And, I think this little tag-line works well in the cyber world, because here I am, writing a blog that ANYONE could be reading.  Also, I’m in Peace Corps- we have a small family in this country (though it’s probably larger than many other countries) and we always joke about the “peace corps rumor mill.”  Yes, it exists. No, it’s not malicious or bad, we just tend to know what’s going on with each other.  So, I guess you can sum it all up with: whether you’re Rwandan or a PCV, you’ve got a slow life and a big part of that life is talking to other people, and news gets carried along in that manner.  No secrets here, plenty of banana leaves.  
Also, I think this is a neat cultural thing to note: whenever there is any sort of celebration (a wedding, The president coming to your district, a birth) people take stalks of banana trees and put them on the side of the roads.  They either attach them to a tree or post, or they plant them so that they remain upright.  Only small fronds are used (maybe 3- 4 feet tall), but they are noticeable.  The first time I saw them (on a main road) I was so confused, and it took me a few weeks to figure out the actual purpose or reasoning.  But, as far as I can tell, they signify celebration.  
Last little shout-out of the post: I want you all to know that I have the most amazing mother.  Amazing family in general, really.  But, mother dearest is looking out for her baby girl over here and I swear it’s keeping me going.  Life isn’t unbearably rough over here, but it’s no cake walk either, and The e-mails and phone calls and impending care packages from my mama are the sorts of little things that make my day.  The rest of you are pretty cool too (and I love reading your e-mails and facebook comments) but mom takes the cake! (that’s twice I’ve used the work “cake”... that would be great right about now. Maybe I’ll figure out how to make one on a charcoal stove).  That’s all for now! xoxo

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mail (the positive version)

Alright folks, I officially have an address now! Well, I suppose if we want to be technical, I’ve had an address, but I NOW have a PO box to which you can send mail.  Only bad news I have to tell this evening is this: we are still not able to send mail to the US.  There’s been some kind of strange mail embargo that no one has been able to explain to me, but it means that no mail is allowed into the states from Rwanda (and apparently a whole slew of other countries).  Best I can figure is that the US has upped the regulations/ standards for mail and many countries are not able to meet them.  Who knows, but once I am able to send snail mail, you can expect to have some in route to you!  xoxo

Allison Snyder
PO Box 47
Musanze, Rwanda

As always, be sure to write Air Mail/ Par Avion somewhere on the envelope, and if you feel like attempting to avoid custom officers and their meddling fingers, make me out to be a nun ("Sister Allison"... bible verses, etc)

Saturday, January 15, 2011


While I’m thinking about it: update on mail.  It pains me to say this, but hold off on sending stuff until I’ve secured a new post box.  Well, that’s the official stance at least.  Peace Corps wants us to stop using their box and get our own (but, if you absolutely can’t wait, I doubt much harm will come from sending mail to the box there).  This is a slow process because the postal system in this country is a bit of a mystery.  I will have to go to one of the close big cities and get a box there, and I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.  Soon! I also have mail I want to send to you all so I need to figure this out soon.  Thanks for the love, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted.  Also- and this is important- if you have already sent me something, I should be able to pick it up at the PC office, so don’t fret!  And thanks again, you guys really do keep me going over here :) 

ALSO: I just finished uploading a few photos, so check em out:

Saturday Morning

I should probably be getting dressed to go to the market right now, but I think instead I will wait for my floors to dry and write a little update for all you folks back home.  It’s Saturday morning here.  Calm, cool, foggy; like all the mornings I’ve experienced since being at my new house.  I am situated in a valley, surrounded by hills and mountains, in the middle of a gigantic tea plantation.  It’s beautiful here, it’s relaxing, it’s serene, and it’s slow.  This past week has certainly been a week of adjustment, but life is turning out to be quite enjoyable out here.  My actual living quarters are improving daily.  I finally got furniture the other day, so my mattress has a bed, my butt has a chair, my food has a surface, books have a bookshelf and this computer is perfectly situated a top a table.  That all sounds pretty standard, but living here without furniture for the first couple days was, well, rather depressing.  So, this house is slowly but surely becoming a home.  I mentioned that I’m waiting for my floor to dry: I just washed it, after bathing in the living room.  The floors here are all concrete and it’s actually quite common for people to wash themselves then wash the floors (via squeegee) and call it a day.  I think it’s the perfect mixture of convenient and practical- always an excellent combination.  
School started this past Monday.  Well, officially, school started; realistically, I think we held one day of actual classes.  I am exceptionally pleased with my school.  It’s fairly small, which means that even with the Peace Corps regulation that I am to teach no more than 15 hours a week, I will be able to teach all the Secondary students.  I will be teaching a S1 English class, and teaching each level a listening and speaking intensive English lesson once a week.  I also get to teach a section of a class called “creative performance.”  I’m still not entirely sure what the official objective of that last course is, but I can tell you one thing, we’re gonna have some fun during that hour each week.  Basically, my schedule at school is great!  I get Fridays off, which will make any weekend travel feasible, and will provide time for me to concentrate on doing other things around my home (either in my physical living area, or in my community here).  Peace Corps advises that you stay at site for the first three months of your service, in order to promote integration in your community.  Now, while I can see how that could be very productive and beneficial in some situations, I don’t think it’s entirely necessary.  Granted, everyone adjusts at their own speed and in their own ways, so for some, I’m sure that hunkering down and remaining at site for three months is perfect.  For me, I think it is not my preferred method.  I’m not trying to leave my area every weekend, but I do plan on little day trips here and there, and possibly an overnight trip sometime in the near future.  As trainees, we were told to have no expectations (a nearly impossible task, but I tried my hardest to keep expectations down and enthusiasm up) and as volunteers we are supposed to make integration a number one priority.  Ok, I’m on board with those goals, but, I am quickly noticing that Peace Corp’s expectations for us volunteers and the expectations of my community (and of Rwanda as a whole) are rather different.  I really do think that the disparities present in what is expected of me as a volunteer allow for some leeway, and actually cater to personalized integration mechanisms.  As long as I feel that I am being an effective volunteer (being a successful teacher, getting along with my community, happily adjusting to a Rwandan life) then I think the ends will justify the means.  Essentially, I doubt I’ll be at site constantly for the first three months, but that’s not because I feel the need to escape, it’s really due to my personality and how I like to live my life, whether I’m here or in any other country.  I feel at home in this community already and I will soon start visiting my neighbors and spending more time hanging out with the locals.  It’s a slow process, and I’m definitely placing integration at my school at the top of my priority list, but so far, so good: I really feel good about being here.  My mom sent me an e-mail asking how school was going, if I was nervous, if I was a giant spectacle.  Well mom, it’s going well!  I’m slowly but surely teaching all the kids my name, in order to reduce the cries of “muzungu!” (which means “white person”), so I now am nearly constantly surrounded by kids saying “aaallliiiiisone.”  I think it’s fun.  The young primary school students flock to me each time there is a break at school, giggling, talking, staring.  I think I’m still a bit of a novelty (which was bound to happen really) and though it can be a little annoying to be constantly gawked at, it’s not too bad!  One of the best moments around the students is when they actually want to speak with me, actually want to practice their English.  There are some pretty competent and motivated kids at school so I’m hoping that this year will prove to be really enriching and enjoyable.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

The PST wrap-up

Happy new year! I know I’m a little late on the well-wishes, but I mean them sincerely nonetheless.  I’m about to move out of the lovely town of Nyanza and  onto my future residence, the place I’ll be calling home for the next two years: Kiruri.  I’d like to fill you all in on what the end of 2010 brought about and what has happened to me thus far in 2011.  Well, maybe I won’t tell you everything, but let’s hit some of the highlights.  I guess the last post I wrote was all about Christmas, so I have nothing to add to that topic.  Training finished with a flourish.  I don’t mean that to be an entirely sarcastic comment either... I was actually quite pleased with how everything went during our training and I thought the ends perfectly coincided with the means.  There were a lot of little tests and evaluations: both of ourselves and of the way training was conducted.  The most monumental of the “tests” was our language proficiency interview (LPI).  This was a definite stress inducer mostly because you have to achieve a certain level of proficiency (low-intermediate).  I ended up doing just fine with that, and in the interview I had with the training staff they had nothing but good positive things to say to me.  I don’t mean to brag by saying any of this, and please don’t interpret it as entirely self-inflating, it’s just accurate.  And it’s proof that this whole peace corps thing is going really well so far.  I have a tendency to pointedly not finish with a bang, but this time I think I got it right.  Now, that’s not to say that I’m not tired and anxious about moving and immediately beginning the school year, but I know I can handle it.  So, let’s see, after all the final logistical requirements and hoops we had to jump through, we celebrated the new year.  It was different than what I was anticipating, but I had a great new year’s eve, and I think all of us were able to ring the new year in in style.  Not many Rwandans seemed to be out partying in the conventional manner you would expect to see on new year’s, but we did a great job of making our own fun, like always.  Just 2 days later, we were all taken down to Kigali for our swearing-in ceremony.  We arrived to the city Sunday morning, ran some errands (which is never fun with 65 people), went shopping, ate delicious food, hung out in the rooms where we stayed the night, and the next day we became legitimate, official, new peace corps volunteers.  Now I can refer to myself and my colleagues as PCV’s without being incorrect.  The actual ceremony was absolutely lovely!  The day was not without it’s share of hiccups, but that’s the name of the game after all.  We’re all learning how to be a little more patient (at least I am... you know patience isn’t my strong-suit).  Back to how lovely our ceremony was- It was held at the ambassador’s residence in Kigali.  We were taken around to the backyard, where they had set up a few large white tents with chairs, a podium, all the appropriate flags and camera men from various Rwandan media sources.  We all looked great, we were all in a fantastic mood, we had smiling, welcoming hosts and guests and, well, I don’t think it could’ve been much better if I had been in charge of every detail myself.  Some of my fellow PCV’s gave speeches (one in English, French and Kinyarwanda respectively), the ambassador spoke, our country director Mary spoke, as did some officials from the Rwandan government.  Possibly the most charismatic speaker was the Rwandan Minister of Health, whose speech was both appropriate and amusing (not to mention inspiring).  After we talked, after we took the oath (is that correct English? do you “take the oath”? sometimes I wonder why they think I should be over here teaching English) we were served some of the best food I’ve ever had.  At least, it tasted that way at the time.  It was primarily what we would think of as “American” food, and half the stuff I wouldn’t have touched in the states (deviled eggs, quiche, vegetarian lasagna, potato salad with real mayo) but it was so so tasty and rare that I certainly enjoyed every bite.  One of the other PCV’s said it best, I think: “the food is so great because the hot stuff is hot and the cold stuff is cold.”  So accurate!  Also, Kigali (being the land of Oz) has ice! You can get ice in your beverages! What a novelty that has become. So, as you can imagine, we felt like princes and princesses in this extravagant and indulgent city, and I think we enjoyed it for the most part.  The only possible downside to the whole she-bang could be that since we have all been trickling out the site over this past week, we spent most of our time in Kigali buying stuff so that we can survive life on our own.  Electric hot plates, skillets, towels, blankets, buckets, and the list goes on and on and on and on.  After the ceremony, the shopping sprees, the gluttony, the waiting, and incessant bus rides, we were all tired when we returned to Nyanza and the week has been fairly quiet since.  I just ran up to the center, in order to use the free internet one last time before I leave.  I’m all packed, ready to go, all I’m waiting for is the truck to swing by my house and the 4 hour drive to site.  ***Right as I connected to the internet to post this, the truck did arrive and I had to run home.  So, this post is going up about a week later than I intended. Oh well, so it goes over here :)