Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My Wish List!

Several people have asked me what I'd like in a care package, so here is my list!

Chocolate, of course, but also books for the students. It is the craziest thing, but books are worth their weight in gold here. They are nearly impossible to find, well-loved to the point of being unreadable, and extremely expensive.

Flat rate boxes through USPS are the best deal going, but shipping to Rwanda is pricey and slow--I think the mail is transported via goat on the last leg of its journey. Still, care packages are always much appreciated. I've learned to do without a lot of things during the last couple months, but teaching without books is really cramping my style!

The List:

1. TOEFL prep books with practice tests
2. News and science magazines
3. Cliffs notes books, especially for the sciences!
4. Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe. This is considered the best African novel and I'd like my kids to read it (most have never read a novel). My goal is to obtain as many copies as possible. In a perfect world, I would acquire enough copies to assign it as reading for my senior class over the April break (I have about 160 seniors, so it may be a stretch).
5. I would also like a set of The Chronicles of Narnia (my fave) for the school.
6. A good dictionary--I forgot to bring one!
7. Speakers for my computer (for English listening exercises)
8. Molecular model kits for chemistry "lab"
9. Lindt chocolates (any kind of chocolate, really) and gummi candies for me :)

My mailing address:

Emma Eck
WorldTeach c/o KJ Fulkerson
Kigali Post Office
P.O. Box 4875
Kigali, RWANDA.
(writing GOD BLESS YOU somewhere on the package will keep it from getting tampered with)

Many Thanks Everyone!!!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Constantine and Fidele

Every day I learn more and more of my students’ names and faces. More than a few students have sought me out to discuss American politics, world events, my opinions of Rwanda vs. America, and the possibility of studying at an American university. In stilted English, they relate to me their problems and their dreams.

Today a Senior 4 (10th grade) student, Constantine, chatted with me for a good 45 minutes about his home life and his schooling. He dreams of becoming a doctor. During the course of our talks, Constantine told me that he suffers from terrible headaches and that his eyes are extremely photosensitive. Desperate for a cure, his family took him to a traditional healer who informed them that Constantine’s eyes were “poisoned.” Now I’m certainly no optometrist, but his symptoms are identical to those from which I suffered before I finally got my glasses. All the boy needs is a new pair of specs!

I traded glasses with Constantine long enough for me to confirm that his prescription was extremely weak—little better than no glasses at all. When I told Constantine that I thought he needed a stronger prescription, he responded as I knew he would—his family can’t afford to buy him new glasses. A visit to the optometrist and a new pair of glasses would cost $50-$60, roughly equivalent to his school fees for an entire year (I had misstated the amount for school fees as $250 in a previous blog).

This is the second student whom I’ve spoken with who suffers from poor vision. Last week, one of my Senior 5 students, Fidele, informed me that he couldn’t see my Power Point presentation. I suspect that I have numerous students in need of a decent pair of glasses. These are extremely bright kids who struggle daily with a problem that no American kid need suffer from. So, my dear blog readers, if you are interested and able, please consider donating money to help me buy Constantine and Fidele new eyeglasses. You may contact me via email at for details. In Rwanda, something so seemingly small can change a kid’s life forever.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Muzungu, Muzungu!"

I am almost daily chased around town by a street kid with one useless leg asking me for money. To get around, he drags his body through the streets using his hands. His hands and clothes are filthy with dirt from the streets that other men spit in. Truth be told, it’s quite alarming. And man, is he FAST!

A week ago, I was in town with two fellow volunteers when the kid spotted us and gave chase. As a general rule, WorldTeach volunteers don't give handouts for three reasons: 1. There are simply too many people asking for money--colleagues, students, people on the street, everyone--and we simply can't help everyone 2. Giving handouts could become a safety concern (I keep envisioning getting mobbed on the streets of Musanze because I gave some kid 100 francs) 3. Most of us are on very tight budgets.

Despite the fact that every time I see him, I tell this kid that I don't give people money, he never gives up. My friends and I continued walking for an entire block with this guy dogging our heels, chanting "Muzungu Muzungu.” Several times we repeated, "Sorry, we don't give out money," as we faced forward and continued walking. In a final effort to shake him, we stepped off a three foot high step, thinking that he wouldn't be able to follow. Wrong. It was only an instant before he was at our heels again. I didn't immediately notice. Incredulous, my fellow volunteer turned to me and said, "How in the world did he get down that step?!" When I looked around and saw him at my feet, I burst out laughing! He laughed too, enjoying the joke of being completely underestimated by us and taking us by surprise.

I thought to myself that if circumstances were different, if we both spoke the same language, this street kid and I would most likely be friends. He seems like a guy with a great sense of humor. Next time he asks me for money, I’ll probably give him just a little. After all, in the grand scheme of things, what’s a few francs between friends?

Mailing Address

For those who would like to send a care package my way, here is my mailing address. I would LOVE to receive something from home, but keep in mind, shipping to Africa is expensive. Check out the flat rate box at the post office for heavier items like books. I'll brainstorm a wish list in the next couple of days...I've learned to do without a lot, but I'd I could really go for some Lindt chocolates and dried mango slices from Trader Joe's--all of us WorldTeach volunteers have become completely obsessed with food :)

Emma Eck
WorldTeach c/o KJ Fulkerson
Kigali Post Office
P.O. Box 4875
Kigali, RWANDA.

Monday, February 8, 2010

All Apologies

Please excuse the lack of pics and the length of some of my postings. I am fighting an epic battle against bad internet connections, but will attempt to make my blog more visitor friendly! Many thanks to all who are following along and wishing me well!

These Kids Are Gonna Crush Me

I heart my students. For the most part, they are amazing people—thoughtful and funny, intelligent and sooo hard-working. This first term (February through March), I am only teaching 6 hours of biology lab per week for Senior 5 MCB (11th grade, Math-Chem-Bio Track). My headmaster wants me to spend much of my time mentoring clubs, such as Media Club and Science Club, and helping students and teachers with their English. Classes must be taught entirely in English. Somehow the teachers manage, even though their English skills are severely lacking. I’ve also been assisting the biology lecture teacher with lesson planning and scouring the web for scholarship opportunities for my kids.

My school is a Catholic Boarding school with 700 boys and girl aged ~13-25 years old, although I do have one student that is 28 years old. There isn’t really an age cut-off; when families can afford school fees, students go to school. Usually the older students had to take time off due to financial difficulties. If my understanding is correct, school fees run about $250 per year for secondary school. The strict regimentation resembles that of a prison, students are packed into their dormitories like sardines in bunk beds, and all they ever eat is rice and beans, rice and beans, rice and beans. And yet, you’ve never seen people so thankful for the opportunity to be here and learn…

We have a computer lab. The computers use floppy disks and, of course, we have no internet to speak of. Sometimes we don’t even have electricity. Armed with only my laptop, I am determined to teach these kids (as well as the teachers!), how to navigate the internet. Most of the older students use email once every few months, but no one has any idea how to use a search engine or conduct internet research of any kind. In fact, the other day one of the English teachers asked me to find the web page with literature. It’s always THE web page for this or that, because they really have no idea what’s out there. My students are incredibly knowledgeable about the subjects they study, as well as about world news and politics (more so than I am, I’m afraid), so it’s my goal to bridge the technology gap for them as much as I can. Stay tuned for student facebook pages later in the year!

My entire lab curriculum this year requires microscopes that we just don’t have. The microscopes donated to the school by Millersville University are on their way, but shipping will take a month or two. Until then, I have 6-8 students to a microscope. And the scopes themselves are fairly useless. Ah well, we’ll make due somehow. Happily, I lucked out in locating a projector for my laptop—a gift to the school from a Japanese non-profit that supports science education in developing countries! I found out about this jewel today and promptly procured it from the headmaster’s office where it is kept under lock and key. Sadly, I also found out today that I would be entrenched in a year-long custody battle for the projector with the computer class instructors.

Regardless, having access to Power Point totally made today’s lab. The instructor for the biology “theory” class adapts his lessons from a black and white textbook from the 1970s. Using the “chalk and talk” method, he writes all of the notes on the chalkboard, which the kids studiously copy verbatim. Using Power Point, I can incorporate microscopy pictures into my slide shows to show the students what they would see through their microscopes if they actually worked! Score!

I recently received an anonymous donation of $250 through the WorldTeach website (thanks so much, whoever you are)! That money will help fund our Media Club, which is comprised of ~70 students. The students’ goal is to publish (in English) a one-page weekly newsletter to be posted in the school. Subject matter includes local, national, and world events. Students will also publish a larger monthly newsletter to be distributed to 10 of the largest secondary schools in Musanze. Their goal is for their newsletter to become famous within the Musanze District. My goal is to help them. I’ve already committed to donating any additional funding necessary to make the newsletter happen. What’s a girl to do? Media Club is invaluable in helping the students hone their English, writing, and debating skills—skills that will determine whether these kids sink or swim in this harsh world of Rwanda.

Every day several people in town ask me for amafaranga (money). This is where my inability to speak Kinyarwanda comes in handy. Obviously, I’m unable to fund every Rwandan’s dinner and dreams, but since I’m a white foreigner, I’m seen as “rich.” And comparatively, I am rich. The ability to obtain an education via student loans, or buy a townhouse in Lancaster’s lovely west end via a 30-year mortgage, is unheard of here. Despite the fact that I’m an unpaid volunteer living on borrowed money, I’m rich in opportunity and a guarantee of future income. From what I’ve seen, the law of Rwanda is “sink or swim, and no second chances.”

That brings us to today. One of my students waited for me after class today. He informed me that he was unable to see my Power Point presentation. Although he was definitely one of the worst English speakers in my class, I managed to cobble together that he required expensive eye surgery—eye replacement surgery, in fact—if he was ever to see anything other than the paper right in front of his face. I’m not entirely clear on the details, but I’m thinking that maybe he needs a cornea transplant. All he could tell me was that his doctor told him his eye was destroyed and he needed a new one. He thought maybe I could help. It’s heartbreaking to tell some kid that you’re unable to help when there’s nothing in the world that you want more than to help. I looked into his eyes and told him that there was nothing I could do. It was then and there that I came to my realization: These kids are gonna crush me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

When Life Gives You Lemons

When life gives you lemons (instead of the oranges that you thought you were buying at the agro market), eat them anyway and be glad you’ve staved off scurvy for another day! This is my philosophy.

Yesterday was the first day of school, but not really. At the last possible moment (I found out today, Tuesday), the Ministry of Education announced that because Monday was Heroes Day (Veteran’s Day), there would be no school, even though my Headmaster had told me unequivocally, just days previous, that school started Monday. Thanks for the heads up! In the states we somehow manage to get a week’s notice for trick-or-treat night, which is insignificant, completely arbitrary and changes every year; it’s not like Heroes Day snuck up on us; it’s been up there on the calendar this whole time…

I waited outside my classroom yesterday for a whole 45 minutes before I gave up and went home. Throngs of students were everywhere, and as per usual, they were all extremely eager to find out my marital status, but the offices were closed and there was nary a teacher in sight!

Today was the actual first day of school. And by “actual,” I mean that for some reason, even though I was scheduled to teach today, I still didn’t have class. Class just didn’t happen—this is one of the many mysteries I’ve encountered during my time here. It’s like trying to uncover the meaning of life or decipher an ancient scroll written in a dead language—except that some of the people here kinda speak English and still can’t give you a good reason for the things that happen.

Since my school is one of the premier science boarding schools in the country, my headmaster cracks a mean whip and demands that the students be present for the first day of class, instead of trickling into school the first two weeks a few students at a time (as in most Rwandan schools). To ensure that students arrive on time, an exam is given the first day of class, which counts as a fourth of the grade for each of the three terms.

Two weeks ago, I was informed that I would be giving an exam. Four days ago, I was again informed that I would be giving an exam. Four days ago, I obtained the course curriculum for this year, as well as for last year, and I wrote up an exam based on material taught last year. Today, I was outside my lab at 7:45 to proctor my 8:00 exam. At 8:00, my lab was still locked; I happened to notice an inconspicuous piece of paper posted in the courtyard: According to the Ministry of Education, classes were to begin Tuesday (now you tell me!) and students were to be administered a 2-hour exam, starting at 8:15. Ha!—thought you got me with that one, didn’tcha? Not so! Although I was only scheduled to teach a 50 minute class, I had plenty of test to give, and it was haaaard! At 8:15, I met my fellow biology teachers and received my first tour of the lab—still no students. I mean, there were students in other classrooms, just not in mine. I told my fellow bio teachers that I had an exam that I was just itchin’ to give (it was soooo haaaard!), and asked them if they knew if I was supposed to be giving an exam today, and if not, who was giving it? I was escorted to the Academic Master who informed me that I should be administering an exam today, but that exams were taken in the classroom, not the lab.

I received many different directions for classroom Senior 5 MCB, but haven’t yet located it. For one second, I thought I had found it—I had walked to a classroom located in the far corner of the courtyard, as indicated by one of my colleagues. It was full of students, but there was no one at the helm—this must be IT! No such luck. The unmanned class was an English class; the teacher was MIA. However, the helpful students indicated that my classroom was located in the opposite direction. I introduced myself before investigating my new lead, “Nitwa Emma! Muraho and goodbye!” I exited the classroom, the echoes of uproarious laughter following after. Another total fail—I had been directed to the Senior 6 classrooms, not Senior 5. It was now around 8:40. As I wandered around the courtyard, I saw nary a student or teacher. Everyone was in a classroom, either silently writing an exam on the chalkboard, or diligently copying the exam into a notebook. Alas, alack, what was I to do?

Then, in the distance, who did I spy? My Headmaster! Surely he could tell me where my class was! I related my problem to Father Jean Claude and he responded, “Who told you that you were giving a test today?”

“You did,” I said.

“Some of the classes have been combined. This test is very serious for the students. You are not giving a test today. You will give a lab practical test the next time you teach, but today you should relax and mingle.”

Soooo, I decided to go back to my lab and take an inventory of equipment and supplies. Sigh. It wasn’t looking good. I checked out the few microscopes we had and found them to be severely lacking. Sure, they magnified at 40x (the lowest magnification) just fine, but crank them up to any higher magnification and everything was a hot blurry mess. These were the “good” microscopes. I investigated the microscopes that had “not so good function.” Broken is what I would call them. Completely, unusably, BROKEN. I didn’t see one decent microscope in the bunch, and guess what Senior 5 Biology Practical is all about? You guessed it: cytology, histology, all my favorite microscopy stuff, but without one decent microscope. Thankfully, I had a few good microscopes of my own…except that I had left them at home in the States, pending an actual address to ship them to. Time to get on my horse and have Ben ship them, pronto! And don’t even get me started on the tangled mess of prepared slides or the “reagent cabinet….”

At this point, the Academic Master entered the lab and asked me where I was giving my exam today. It was past 9:00. I told him that the Headmaster informed me that I wasn’t giving an exam today. The Academic Master looked confused, left the room, and never came back. Fifteen minutes later, two of the biology teachers came in and asked me if my exam was over already. I informed them that Father Jean Claude had told me that I wasn’t giving an exam. I was asked, “Why not?”

“Becaaause….,” I searched for an answer, “I don’t know!”

I threw my hands up, defeated, and they laughed.

Tomorrow, a day or two after the official start of the school year, I will attend the first teachers’ meeting. I am hoping for some answers to my myriad questions, but like the oranges that turned out to be lemons, but may still indeed be oranges (I can’t be sure, even after eating one), some things are bound to remain a mystery…