Well helloooo. This Hand is across the water again, but this time, in Kigali, Rwanda.
I had promised friends and family that I’d keep a blog to document my experiences here in Rwanda. For some reason it’s been more difficult this time around to get started. I still feel a bit in a daze for some reason. But here we go anyway!
Before I left, there were definitely more than a few people who said some version of, “Why?!” “Why Africa?!” “Why Rwanda?” And in fact some students have asked the same question, but with a very different tone-ha!
So, to answer: it wasn’t so much, “I want to go to Rwanda!” (Although I had read a lot about it in the past.) It was a matter of the right job. I had been looking to teach abroad again, and after perusing and applying and investigating and being interviewed, the position at Bridge2Rwanda seemed ideal.
What B2R does, according to the website:
“Bridge2Rwanda Scholars is a rigorous program that identifies and prepares Rwanda’s most talented and promising students to compete for international scholarships.
Once they are awarded a scholarship, B2R connects the students to local host families, communities of faith, academic counselors, career advisors and internship opportunities. The goal is not only to prepare B2R Scholars to succeed as international students, but to live with purpose as future leaders of Africa.
B2R creates jobs and opportunities to help the Scholars launch their careers in Africa. B2R is building a network of potential employers in Africa, including local, foreign-owned and multinational businesses, NGO’s and governments.”
See, that sums it up better than I could have rambled about.
My position is the Lead English teacher, which of course requires teaching, but also more administrative tasks. Very similar to my job at Virginia Tech, the students come with a certain level of English, and the academic prep team’s role is to help them learn more academic English, including reading longer more intense articles and books, taking notes on longer academic lectures, writing essays and research papers, giving speeches, and developing more critical thinking skills rather than the rote memorization that many have been used to.
The scholars I teach (38 of them) are from Rwanda (most), Burundi (2), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2), and South Sudan (5- including two who were living in Kakuma Refugee Camp—where I was last summer). The woman who I replaced in this job (who went back to the US to get her PhD) explained the scholars like this: “Imagine a class of 38 valedictorians”. I don’t think I’ve ever taught such motivated, hard-working students. Well, not a whole class of them at least. They know what the stakes are, and they have all had education as a priority in their lives. They had to apply to this program, and were interviewed in large groups and then individually. They had to show a level of modesty and community-service. They all live together in a house near the campus, and are trained from the beginning (they started in March) that they will only succeed if they work as a team—which goes against a lot of the competitiveness of a student who is used to being at or near the top. That hard job has already been done with this cohort—Group 7. It’s now August, so they’re about four months in.
So far, I’ve felt a little overwhelmed in the job, just trying to make sure I’m getting everything done, but I’m starting to feel like I’ve got my head around (most) of it. At the moment the main class I’m teaching is a test-prep class—preparing them to take the TOEFL exam (which is a requirement of most US universities that shows their English level). So, that leaves a little less room for creativity, but the spring and fall classes have a bit more space for that. They’ll take the exams starting early fall, so it’s pretty much crunch-time now.
On my first day I was greeted with welcome signs, applause, and a song. Pretty hilariously, they applaud after some lessons (but don’t after others which starts to give you a complex). Although I’m pretty sure it just takes one student to start and the rest follow suit, it’s pretty funny. They might just be clapping that class is finished though….
The City (Kigali) First impressions:
I’m going to go ahead and make the analogy that I’m in the NYC of Rwanda. Someone trying to explain US culture and life to his or her friends and family after moving to New York City would probably miss a lot of “typical” American culture. (I truly do love NYC, but it’s pretty damn different from the regular small-mid-size towns in the US.) So, I’ve moved to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, meaning I haven’t really seen how “typical” Rwandans live in the rest of the country. Kigali has maybe a little more than 5% of the population of Rwanda.
Kigali is a strange mixture of skyscrapers with fancy hotels and pools (including the famous Hotel des Milles Collines—which the movie Hotel Rwanda was based on) and then more “working class” (for lack of a better expression) neighborhoods. It almost feels like two separate cities that exist on top of each other.
In a lot of ways, life is not hard here for a typical expat. There are a lot of restaurants (although some people who have been here longer say there really aren’t that many….but they’re not from Southwest Virginia). There are Indian restaurants, American/European, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, “Mexican” (kind of not really), and of course African/ Rwandan. Beyond that, there is a food delivery service where you can order food online and it gets delivered by motorcycle. So, yeah. Life truly isn’t that difficult (if you have money).
There are lots of groceries, and although not everything is familiar (the sweet potatoes are white inside!) you can pretty much find most things. I was luckily warned of the lack of dark chocolate (I’m such a princess) so I brought my own. There is red wine, which after a year in Indonesia without (except for random trips to bigger cities & Bali) I am forever grateful for it. It’s not necessarily what they’re known here for, but it’s available. The avocados are plentiful, huge, and cheap and there’s even an avocado tree in my front yard, although I do need to figure out how to get them before they drop and rot. Climb the tree? I’ll google it.
There are coffee shops, several of which have rooftop seating with incredible views of the city. The great thing about a city built on a bunch of high hills is that lots of places have amazing views—including the house where I live.
(Views from coffee shops)
Most middle-upper class Rwandans (and probably all expats) have housekeepers and guards (who sometimes also work as gardeners). The house I’ve moved into (with other expats—all of whom I haven’t met yet—another story) has a guard and a housekeeper. The guard lives here full time, in a room at the back of the house. He’s in his early 20s, and is nice and helpful, especially when I get back late and stupidly can’t open the gate. (I’m working on it). The housekeeper does laundry, washes floors, and does dishes. I’ve only seen her once since I’m usually at work, but she’s also nice. This is one thing that is a bit strange for me. I know it’s the norm, but there’s just an uncomfortable element of colonialism in it. Although of course many Rwandans in Kigali have guards and housekeepers too. In Indonesia I had a housekeeper as well, because my Indonesian neighbors said I should—and I mean, it truly was great to have someone else do the cleaning! (It’s definitely not my forte.) However, like I said, there is a certain aspect of two different Rwandas, which I feel especially when it comes to things like that. But that being said, there are two different USAs in many ways, which in my middle-class existence I haven’t had to experience. SO yeah. There’s that.
Some of the challenges (for me anyway):
Transportation: Well, I don’t know if it’s technically a challenge. I mean, it’s not too hard to flag down a moto driver. (Moto = motorcycle taxi). Probably the bigger challenge is explaining where you want to go when you don’t exactly know (something I should be able to get better at) AND when the driver sometimes doesn’t understand you (fair). It’s also a bit challenging to not have any other options besides motos. (And walking, but did I mention the hills?)—Oh a quick aside: Even if you DID want to walk, and the place you want to go is directly below your house, you will still have to walk SO far out of the way because the streets don’t connect. Like, the street will go parallel to the one you want to be on and you have to walk all the way down and around the hill, not straight down. (Can I paint a visual or what?) It’s very frustrating. Anyway, back to the motos— their helmets are always too big and sometimes the drivers aren’t the most sensible (although neither are the drivers of cars—which doesn’t help). I’ve been encouraged to look for a car if I’m planning to be here for any length of time, but how does one who has been spoiled with two mechanical fathers buy one’s own car?! I ask you. Maybe a scooter?
Views from the backs of motorcycles (and a helmet selfie)
Language: Actually not too big of a challenge, as a lot of people have at least some English. However, life would be much easier if I spoke Kinyarwanda or even French, although a lot of the younger generations have less French, since the whole Rwandan school system switched over to English about 5(?) years ago—not too happy with past French influence.
This challenge I intend to (somewhat) overcome. I’ve enrolled in an 8 week Kinyarwanda course (3 hours a week) at my favorite coffee shop which will be Tuesday/Thursday from 6:30-8. Although I’ve heard over and over how difficult this language is, I’m hoping to get at least a basic sense of greetings, food (!), numbers (haggling), etc. In general, I think it just shows a certain amount of respect to at least attempt to have a basic level of language. Plus, it gives you insight into so much more if you’re able to communicate with more people. I don’t know how much I’ll really need it, as it’s pretty easy to get by in Kigali anyway without it., but it’ll definitely help with transport and just being a nice Kigali-resident really I guess. However, I’m hoping to travel more to the countryside and then it’ll be especially useful.
I’ll try to have some adventurous escapades to write about here, which could end up being simply a trip to a grocery store or a neighborhood run where children run in front of you like some backwards pied piper. (That already happened, but not total blog-post worthy).
Anyway, I’m happy to be back on here and hope you enjoy reading!