Liebster Award

January 13, 2013

A fellow Fulbright ETA in Austria and Albion College alumnae, Sarah J, just nominated for this spiffy “Liebster Award”. I take this to be an honor and a pseudo-interview of all my favorite bloggers. The rules for nomination are as follows:

-“When you receive the award, you post 11 random facts about yourself and answer 11 questions from the person who nominated you.”
-“Pass the award onto 11 other blogs (make sure you tell them you nominated them!) and ask them 11 questions.”
-“You are not allowed to nominate the blog who nominated you!”
-“Make sure the blogs you chose have 200 or LESS followers” (Yay for the little guys!)

Here are my questions for my nominees:

1)Where in the world would you live for 3 years if you could (job and logistics aside)?

2)What is the most overlooked flaw in American culture?

3)Has a specific relationship (platonic, romantic, teacher-student or otherwise) changed the way you look at other people? How?

4)Is there anything that you want to change in your current situation? What’s stopping you?

5)Are you a cat or dog person?

6) Is there a person or quote that you live by/revisit frequently?

7)Name a good movie that you watched lately.

8)If you are in a bad mood, what’s a foolproof way to get out of it?

9)What thing that makes your life more comfortable could you not live without?

10)If you have the choice, do you prefer to stay in for the evening (usually decked out in pajamas) or to socialize out in the world?

11)Is there one thing that you use daily that you think will become obsolete in the next 10 years?

So! Here are the answers to Sarah J’s questions:
1) What is your greatest accomplishment, to date?

My greatest accomplishment? I really don’t feel like I have accomplished much except to try and get myself more educated through travel and figure out exactly what I think is feasible for me to accomplish in the future. I’m only planning my life for 6 months in the future, at this point, with the hope that I can find a niche and REALLY accomplish something.
2) What is the best book you’ve read recently?

I am midway through “The Shadow of the Sun” by Ryszard Kapuściński, a polish journalist. The book is an excellent chronicle of ‘real journalism’ (wait, there’s a major conflict in Kampala? Let’s go!) during the independence period of most African countries. His writing style includes a wonderful mix of reporting actual events and Walden/Thoreau-style description of culture and place during the tumultuous post-Independence epoch. His chapter on Rwanda is particularly informative and offers one of the most concise and clear writings of one of the main theories concerning the historical conflicts of the country.
3) What is something you wish people understood about you?

This is always a tough question that involves a lot of self-understanding. I think more often than not, I can come across as cold or unfeeling when people divulge certain sensitive things about themselves to me. I don’t mean to come across as such, I am constantly over concerned with pushing or asking too many questions in such situations. I also know that often, I just want someone to listen to my own silly issues without trying to fix them. So, I try to listen and mull the problem in my own head before letting out useless advice. Unfortunately, I think I stay silent for too long and seem as though I am not listening. This is quite the opposite and I hope my friends who have opened up to me, realize this.
4) What is your favorite holiday memory as a child/as an adult?

My favorite holiday memory occurred in my late teens. Per usual, my immediate family gathered round the living room on the morning of Christmas day.  One of my baby  nephew’s gifts had been mislabeled with my name and placed under the over-decorated tree. As a quite snarky, and know-it-all teen, I was quite hoping to unveil some trendy shirt or cool electronic device. Instead, a light blue one-sie appeared out of the well-wrapped package. My initial dismay turned to horror as I thought my parents were hinting at a certain future that I was not ready to take.

My family got a good laugh out of my reaction.
5) What was the most odd or interesting topic of conversation you’ve had lately?

I recently had a conversation (or rather, I listened) about Agroecology, an organic and much more sustainable approach to producing nutritious and environmentally friendly food. It’s approach serves two purposes: to revitalize lost nutrients in the soil and to also re-enforce the self-confidence of  impoverished farmers who often already use these practices. The practice is attempting to be established by an NGO in Rwanda but could be well-used in the US and other agro-giants.
6) Where is your next dream vacation and what would you do there?

Traveling has been on my mind a lot lately, given my new African home for the past few months, but I still would love to travel and go hiking in New Zealand. It looks like a magical place (with or without Hobbits) and seems like a great place to do a low budget hiking trip with some pals (I’m excluding airfare, of course)

7) Answer this question: “if you wanted to spoil me rotten, you would…:”

Give me your Star Alliance miles or an Around the World ticket so I can travel to more cool places.
8) What five words describe you best?

Bookish-Adventurous- Searching-Naive-Lazy

9) What would your perfect night out look like?

A perfect night out would include: my close group of girlfriends from home, really good, filling food paired with large margaritas, and some sort of debauchery; be it dancing the night away, climbing places we shouldn’t, camping in beautiful places, or taking over a public establishment with our loud eccentricities.
10) What is your favorite post/piece of writing?

“A Letter to My Son, Thom” by John Steinbeck. I don’t remember where I found this letter (and this is not the original form that I came across it in) but I’ve always found the honesty of this letter fascinating. Here’s a link posted by The Atlantic:

11) What made you laugh today?

Yesterday (sorry, today has been a bit slow and reclusive), I met with a group of Peace Corps volunteers here in Rwanda. I discovered that one had graduated from my alma mater in 2004 and had majored in English (one of my majors). We also discovered that we knew exactly where each other lived in Southwest Michigan. The world is a small place indeed!


Beach Boys in Santa Hats

January 2, 2013


Happy New Year, friends!! I feel like I owe you all a little longer post, so here’s a synopsis of my holidays:

I returned two days ago from the above beautiful landscape of Zanzibar! It is still hard to believe the whole vacation actually happened, given that every morning and evening it seemed like we were surrounded by postcards or doctored photos from National Geographic.  The island is located just off the East Coast of Tanzania and has a tumultuous history with the mainland country. A main route for slave and spice trade, the small island was (and still appeared to be when one walked the streets of the largest city, Stone Town) ruled by Arab sultans many years before German and British colonizers reached this Eastern shore. Kiswahili is the most spoken language (similar, but much easier than Kinyarwanda) with English serving as an administrative language. Arabic was also seen thoughout the island due to a large Muslim influence.

Nowadays, the island’s coasts are covered with tourists. The Tanzanian government owns much of the island’s more pristine coasts while tourism companies own the more “mzungu” areas. My travel companions included 9 Italians, a British/Italian and one girl from the Czech Republic. As the token American, I learned from locals on the island that I actually came from “Obamaland” instead of the United States of America. We traveled fairly cheaply in these areas, living in hostels and eating local cuisine (best calamari that I’ve ever tasted!), but there were many places that presented lavishly over-the-top digs.

Myself, Marta and Valeria: a couple of the fabulous Italians who tolerated me over holiday.

Myself, Marta and Valeria: a couple of the fabulous Italians who tolerated me over holiday.

Spending time with the Italians was always interesting. The group was fun, adventurous and generally loud. Our communication was often an odd negotiation between Italian, English and French. As most of the group came from a small town near Milan, they spoke a unique dialect that actually had some similarities to French making it a little easier for me to follow their conversations. If all goes well, I want to visit them on my return trip home. I now have a new goal to learn Italian!

Language is  always a funny, amorphous part of our personality. Language is probably the most transferable part of each of our cultures and how they mix and blend is a linguistic anthropologist’s dream. But as just an average traveler, it’s also interesting to observe the changes in myself. My English has even changed a little, evening out my strong Michigan accent in favor of a more neutral, internationally-understood one. I often take for granted that a majority of the world invests part of its education in my mother tongue, particularly in areas frequented by muzungus. But as I soon realized, traveling without knowing other languages is much more difficult for my European friends and even more so for my African friends.


And so, I finally come to the beach boys. These local young men patrol the beach, constantly offering their services as guides to the local activities: snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, spice tours and tours of the famed Prison Island. Yes, sometimes they were annoying (“Special price for you, rafiki”) but had incredible language skills. Italian, French, English, Swedish, German and even some limited Czech were frequently among the repertoires of these Rasta/Maasai/Santa Clauses.

One of my Italian friends, Giampaollo, was struck by the bizarreness of hearing your mother tongue spoken fluently in place far from home. As a spoiled English speaker, I had become habituated to such occurrences thoughthe occasional American slip of culture in such a faraway places still surprises me (Rihanna plays on the radio as much as East African singers do; American emblems worn on t shirts everywhere). The thought of it is slightly terrifying, the rest of the world observing my country’s actions and often taking a specific interest in American travelers. The Italians were noticed in the same way on Zanzibar (negative presumptions and all) and their disturbed reaction reminded me of my own country’s international presence and cultural pervasiveness. Escaping my own culture is becoming more and more difficult. The United States has a hand in nearly every nation’s pot, whether we like it or not.

The Three Month Mark

December 6, 2012

Traveling has its costs. Being away from friends and family, missing important events, and remembering the very different life I led only a few months ago can sometimes make me homesick. So why travel? Why go to the places that American media only writes gruesome stories about? Why go to a place where comforts that make life a little more convenient are not always easily found? Why put myself under the extra stress and fatigue?

I travel because of the three month mark. Without fail, the first three months are socially isolating, emotionally tiring and physically uncomfortable. But with the passing of my three month anniversary and a third of my program here, I can say I feel like myself again. I have found some community in Kibungo, my body is growing used to the new diet and physical demands and even just creating my own routine has brought back some happy equilibrium back to my life.  At work, Olivia and I are also starting several projects including an English Club, and a Language Center that are showing promise. Olivia has been working with numerous mental health and clinical psychology groups. I am even attempting my own side project. Though it is still in the very earliest stages, I hope to help produce a literary journal written in both Kinyarwanda and English. We will be busy, but I am hopeful.

This same phenomenon occurred during my stays in Cameroon and Suriname. The three month mark is when that nagging “What am I doing here?” question fades a little and a small, fluid sense of belonging slowly replaces that doubt. And in another culture with its own rules of social and professional interaction, the emotional and physical change is thrilling. But unfortunately for my beloved friends and family at home, I also find the transformative three month mark hopelessly addictive.  The change is, by no means, a sign that I really “know” Rwandan culture, that would take much more time than I have here, but I am learning. Nine months is the longest that I have ever spent in another culture and I’m curious what the next six months hold (or at least the next month, I will be spending Christmas on the beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania!).

The coming months will not always be easy, but at least now I do not doubt that I am growing, somehow, some way.

Today, I have finished teaching both my units here at INATEK. There were many failures as well as some bright moments. Next week, I will continue to work in the Language Center, hopefully tutoring TOEFL, performing research and creating an English Club. Most of my students seem excited to continue practicing their English speaking and writing skills and I hope our new activities go over well on campus.

Writing proved to be an interesting challenge for many students. As in any writing, my students had their mistakes as they tried very hard to express themselves well. Below are a some of the more amusing excerpts from some of the essays, tests, and class discussions. Enjoy!

“Education for all is a program of Rwanda to make children 12 years for free”

“Drug Diller like cheaper drugs like marijuana”

“When I go to the USA, I want to see a tomb of Martin Luther King Jr. and a tomb of 2Pac.”

In a formal business letter: “How are you Minister of Education? I am Ok.”

From our friend who normally speaks English well: “It has been too long. We miss you gays!”

In a discussion for an evening class:

Teacher: What is an occupation or a job? Give me an example.

Student: Chooker!

Teacher: Wait what? A hooker? You know what a hooker is?

Student: A chooker!

Teacher: Wait, a cooker? Like a chef?

Student: Yes, but what is a hooker?

“It help the people in smelling in photosynthesis the trees helps on it in that transformation of oxygen.”

“As women give birth involuntarily….”

“So, as conclusion, Rwanda has the good climate, temperature are moderate, the rain fall is enough, so it is the best of the best country.”


November 5, 2012

Forgive the meager photography skills…

The latest and greatest member of the convent family. His mother has been offering fresh milk for the sisters to sell to the community.

Some furry neighbors that I refuse to name due to their inevitable end.

The view as seen from behind my university. Often, fog crowds the valley in the mornings, obscuring the land below except for a few twinkling wood fires.

Roses of all colors appear to grow in each Rwandan’s garden: yellow, pink, red. A few giant pink roses salute my office doorway each morning. Tonight, they are dipped in moonlight.


November 3, 2012

Note the purple and yellow colors. For some reason, every academic institution that I attend has chosen those representative colors. (Schoolcraft Public Schools, Albion College, and now INATEK). Is this a sign of some sort?

Hello friends!

I have just finished my first week of class. Teaching is tough, but I have definitely enjoyed getting to know my students (a solid 60 of them in my Reading/Writing class). We often have problems understanding each other, given English isn’t their first language and I do not speak with the British crispness that they are used to. All the students, however, are very engaged and want to share their own opinions and experiences. From what I have been told, much of their education has involved just straight memorization from lectures with little to no critical thinking or student input.

So, I ask them to write journals giving only their opinion. I ask them to discuss certain topics. Many seem very uncomfortable with what I ask of them at first, but others produce intellectual gems right without batting an eye. On the first day, I asked students to tell me their opinion about the importance of English and asked them to agree or disagree with me as they please. One particularly witty student (nicknamed Prince, no less) stood up in front of class and gave an original presentation on the importance of cultural identity and the need to fight against neo-colonialism. His 2 minute long presentation gave me giddy shivers; I was so excited!

Induction, or the First Year students’ introduction ceremony, occurred just last night after being postponed for a week. The ceremony included greetings from the Head Rector (or Director), introductions to the various heads of departments and a student question forum, that probably included more criticisms than actual questions.

Below, I have also embedded the INATEK anthem for any of you who may be curious about what Ikinyarwanda sounds like.  Feel free to listen, though I make no promises on sound quality. Ciao!


Some of the other Fulbrighters and I felt a little itchy in our respective home bases and ventured out West to Musanze and Gisenyi last weekend. Olivia and I are still waiting to start classes after several postponements and the other two, Bethany and Mike, wanted to get out of congested Kigali for a breather.  We also met one of the other Fulbrighters, Megan, who teaches English at a university near Musanze. She has been in Rwanda since January and has been a godsend.  She hopes to extend her contract here, giving all of us who are still settling some hope for the coming months. We may very well be in danger of falling in love with this mystical country, but who knows what lies ahead exactly?

The Western region is filled with dramatic upheavals of fields, cloud-topped volcanoes, winding roads and very chilly weather. Our only wish was to enjoy a beach party on the sands of Lake Kivu and work on our tans the next day.  We achieved our goals famously (apparently a couple muzungus in swim trunks and bikinis can draw a gawking crowd).

Our Token Male/Big Brother at the Beach with His New Congolese Friend

But echoing the climatic scenery, the area was full of unease. At night and just a couple of kilometers away, the crest of the volcano burned dimly red through its cloud cover. Lake Kivu, itself, is not only famous for its beauty but is infamous a huge asphyxiating Carbon Dioxide bubble that lies in its depths. And not to exclude human disasters, Gisenyi abuts Goma, divided by a turbulent political boundary with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Despite all these anxiety-inducing potential disasters, many NGO’s and visitors continue to feast their eyes on the fantastic terrain. One NGO organizer that I spoke to related the atmosphere of the area as consistently bubbling with political and natural tensions, allowing many people to continue on with their daily work with few disturbances. I was only able to note the superficial tension during my brief weekend there but that distinct feeling just added to the majesty of the place. The feeling reminded me of the cultural personalities of some of the places/people that I’ve already met: an easily observed beautiful or friendly surface with a well-protected and isolated depth, shrouding convictions that sometimes bubble to the surface.

Click to get the full panoramic view!

Mind you, I am not trying to come from a place of criticism, but of misunderstanding. I am constantly reminded in this place of how little I really know. Rwanda has many more lessons to teach me in the coming months.


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