Archive for September, 2010

Generation Rwanda

It occurred to me that I haven’t yet explained in detail what Generation Rwanda does. Here goes:

To refer to the organization’s mission, Generation Rwanda is “dedicated to helping orphans and other socially vulnerable young people in Rwanda pursue a university education and ultimately become leaders in fostering economic development and social reconciliation. Generation Rwanda’s scholarship and leadership education program provides comprehensive support – including tuition, housing, healthcare, and a wide range of supplemental training programs – that empowers our students to become Rwanda’s next dynamic professionals and leaders in their fields.”

The supplemental programs include English training (where I come in), computer skills training, workshops on CV writing and interview techniques, career development resources, seminars on leadership and entrepreneurship, and more. Generation Rwanda also encourages students to participate in extracurricular activities like the Student Government Association, WE SHARE Community Service Club, Entrepreneurship Club, Computer Studies Club, Student Newsletter, and the incipient Health Club. I am acting as an adviser to the first three clubs listed.

Of the university scholarships available to Rwandan students, Generation Rwanda’s is by far the best. The holistic support package is truly unique and the organization really fosters a sense of community and even of family among all the students, who all attend different universities around Rwanda. Generation Rwanda also makes a concerted effort to focus on women; more than half of the current 196 students are women. Each year there is a new class of about 26-28 students. This year the acceptance rate was 1%, which is crazy. Needless to say, I am incredibly impressed and inspired by all of the students I’ve met so far.

I wear a few different hats at Generation Rwanda, primarily English programming and coordinating general student services. The week of September 13th was New Student Orientation, during which I helped coordinate and facilitate different workshops like Study Skills, Time and Financial Management, Conflict Resolution, Introduction to Leadership, Sexual and Reproductive Health, and more. I was the professional photographer/documenter of the week, I presented an overview of Generation Rwanda’s training programs, and led a session on Plagiarism in the Study Skills Workshop. (Plagiarism was an unfortunately common problem among the applications that Generation Rwanda received this year and among some assignments during last year’s English class.)

Last week was the first week of the new students’ intensive English training. For the next nine weeks, I am in charge of leading bi-weekly afternoon discussion sessions in which the students have a chance to freely practice their speaking. The students spend the mornings in a language center with structured instruction and the other three afternoons learning computer skills like MS Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.

Although I have experience tutoring and leading workshops, teaching in front of a class isn’t something I’m too familiar with. It’s not easy! It requires patience, communication skills, comfort with public speaking, management ability, composure, and more. (I’m sure any teachers reading this can add on to the list.) I already have an immense amount of respect for teachers and I’m sure after this year it will double. Luckily there’s a curriculum framework for me to follow, but it’s up to me to plan and prepare the details of the lessons.

During classes this past week, I took the students through pronunciation practice (starting with an R vs. L exercise), guided them through a discussion about Rwandan culture, introduced the topic of astrology and discussed personality traits, and organized an activity of identifying and describing physical traits of people using magazines. It was definitely challenging but I’m looking forward to seeing them grow and improve over the next ten weeks – I have no doubt it will be really rewarding.

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One month in!

Today is the official one-month mark of me living and working in Kigali. It’s hard to believe 1/12 of my time here has already passed – in some respects I still feel like I’m fresh off the boat and in others I feel like a local. It’s been quite an eventful and exciting four weeks. Here are some of the highlights:

– I taught my first English class yesterday! I’m responsible for guiding the new students through a 10-week English discussion course during their intensive orientation period before they enter university in January. Stay tuned for more details on teaching and Generation Rwanda in my next post.

– This morning I went running for the first time in Kigali. I kept planning to go earlier throughout the month but I was either busy, tired, too full, too hungry, or just lazy. So this morning I got up early, determined to greet the day with some sustained aerobic exercise. Jean de Dieu, the guardian of my house (guard/cleaner/”house boy”), suited up and joined me to show me the good routes around Nyamirambo. He doesn’t speak a word of English or French, which was convenient because we were both pretty winded from all the hills. But it was so invigorating to be back in the game.

– During my first week here, I was walking around downtown Kigali when an old man stopped me to tell me in French that I was “beautiful like a ripe banana.”

– I recently hiked up Mount Kigali, a mountain set back a bit from my neighborhood, with some Rwandan friends. They took me up to the peak, called Mera Neza, where we saw the site of the ancient Rwandan king’s palace shrouded by evergreen-esque trees. The vistas from the peak were breathtaking: the quintessential undulations of the “Land of A Thousand Hills,” valleys, gorges, snaking rivers, and all of Kigali and the nearby city of Gitarama.

– I’ve befriended the local chapati/brochette man in my neighborhood, who gives me between double and quadruple times my order of food (the price usually comes out to around 17 cents a chapati or brochette). My theories are either that he’s trying to fatten me up to make me his wife or he’s just trying to secure a dedicated client through excellent customer care. Perhaps somewhere in between.

– I know all the names of the 26 new students! I have also met about 20-30 of the older students in the program. Though I must admit I only know first names, which are much shorter and easier to pronounce than multi-syllabic family names. I’m still getting used to the fact that people provide their family name as their first name and their given name as their second name. (So it’s not uncommon for me to hear “Hello Stein!” But more commonly I’m referred to as Helen, Hélène, Heraina, and, if I’m lucky, Helaina.)

– As expected, I’ve become very comfortable with the sight of cockroaches scurrying around the kitchen and the sound of mosquitos buzzing around my princess-canopy netting.

– Last weekend I explored the local Nyamirambo market with Caitlin and Mary, where we bought some beautiful fabric. I’m going to have mine made into a skirt and perhaps a shirt or purse. I have a feeling that all of the space in my suitcase that was filled with toiletries and Luna bars will be replaced with fabrics on the way home. They are all so exquisite.

– I have drastically improved my enunciation and drastically decreased my speaking speed. My first goal in teaching is being understood!

– This past weekend I went salsa dancing at a bar in town with Caitlin, Mary, and some students. Who knew there was salsa in Africa, right? One of the Generation Rwanda students is a salsa teacher there so he gave me a few lessons throughout the night. Although I felt like a bumbling fool (partially because I was still wearing my work pants and partially because I have a natural tendency to bumble), it was a great way to spend a Friday night. It goes on every week so it might become a regular thing!

My goals for the next month include: blog more about the details of Generation Rwanda and the work I’m doing, find a piano in Kigali, make running a more regular thing, go to the famous nightclub Cadillac, learn enough Kinyarwanda to have a three-minute conversation, and explore parts of Kigali that I don’t yet know.

I miss you all and I hope you’ve had a good month!

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Feeling dirty?

You’d fit right in here. Dirt seems to follow me EVERYWHERE. In my neighborhood most of the streets are dirt and when it hasn’t rained for a few days, the wind can be a dangerous force. Somehow a thin veil of dirt covers about half of everything I touch – the porch, the floors, the walls, the bath, the table, my feet, etc. (Bread can sometimes be extra crunchy around here, but I’m pretty sure it’s just larger salt granules or seeds…)

I just emerged from an epic 2-hour cleaning session since I figured there’s no better way to repent for my sins of the past year than to cleanse my environment. I really am my mother’s daughter because, as much as I hate to admit it, I kind of enjoy scouring and scrubbing. (Although I have yet to be found attacking the stove with a toothbrush at 2 am, anything is possible.)

Here’s a picture of the water after I did laundry by hand using the very high-tech basin method…(CAUTION: not for the faint of heart.)


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*Translation: I speak a little Kinyarwanda.

As many of you probably know, I love learning new languages and I love challenges. There’s something so thrilling about plunging headfirst into a new way of thinking and new forms of self-expression. And I also really enjoy surprising people who don’t expect Americans to know anything other than “hello” and “where is the bathroom?” (“muraho” and “aho kwituma ni he?”)

After three weeks here, I can proudly say that I can sort of get around and communicate the most essential ideas and requests in Kinyarwanda (Hello, how’s it going?, what are you staring at?, my name is Helaina, I’m hungry, I’d like four chapatis please, the food is delicious, cockroach!, thank you, I’d like a cold beer, do you have any bread?, that’s too expensive!, are you happy?, I don’t understand that, I don’t have any money, good job!, etc.). However I still have a lot of trouble understanding the responses to questions…it’s a work in progress.

Of the languages I speak/have learned (English, French, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Hebrew), I actually find Kinyarwanda the most difficult – mostly because of the pronunciation and because so many words are really similar. For example, the words for water, fish, eggs, milk, and butter are (in order): amazi, amafi, amagi, amata, and amavuta. I also haven’t yet been able to wrap my head around many verb conjugations, but that will hopefully come with time.

Besides speaking with locals and Rwandan friends, a resource that I’ve found invaluable for learning the language is a fairly comprehensive Kinyarwanda-English dictionary that a travel blogger named Morgan put together a few years ago. I’ve also started a tandem language exchange with a student who is teaching me Kinyarwanda and Swahili in exchange for helping him work on his pronunciation. A particular problem he has, which is common for many East Africans, is distinguishing between l and r. It’s not uncommon to hear “I look forward to corrabolating with you” or “would you like some lice and beans?” Mmm, crunchy.

In other news, this past weekend Caitlin did end up cutting my hair…it’s pretty drastic! I think she took 4-5 inches off. Although I’m still kind of in the requisite mourning period, it makes showering ten times faster and it feels a lot healthier. I’ll try to upload a picture sometime in the near future.


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11,000 words…

At this moment I’m sitting curled up on a sofa drinking a warm pot of ginger tea in Shokola, an exquisite cafe/restaurant in Kigali that feels like a spacious but cozy Bedouin tent. Illuminated by flickering lanterns and filled with the aroma of incense, Shokola is definitely the place to be right now – during one of the recent torrential downpours that mark the beginning of the rainy season. One of the hottest (and priciest) spots in town, Shokola also has free higher-speed wireless. So I’m finally able to upload some pictures! Since a picture is worth a thousand words…

Our living room. Lots of natural light = score.

One side of my palatial room

The other side of my room, the closest thing I have to a closet

Where the bucket shower magic happens

Tim and Generation Rwanda students celebrating at his surprise farewell party last Friday

Cyusa, the adorable and superhuman 3-year-old breakdancer

Some friendly Nyamirambo neighbors and me

Mary, Caitlin, and me having a scenic lunch in Kibuye

View from our hotel in Kibuye of Lake Kivu during a rainstorm (no wonder some call Kibuye the Switzerland of Rwanda)

Inside the memorial church in Kibuye where 11,400 Tutsis were slaughtered during the genocide

The nighttime view of Kigali hills twinkling behind my house

Those should give you a pretty good idea of what my life here is like! We just found out earlier today that tomorrow was declared a national holiday because Muslims saw the moon, signifying Eid, the end of Ramadan. I’m not sure what I’ll do with a sudden extra day to myself – perhaps look for a good running route or have Caitlin cut my hair…the possibilities are endless. I’m going to go see if Skype works here, so stay posted. And L’Shanah Tova!

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First week of work

Although I’ve only been here in Kigali for 11 days and working at Generation Rwanda for 5 days, I already feel like I have a routine – which I like! It’s a nice way to balance the excitement of living in a completely foreign place that excites and bewilders me every day. My routine this past week was essentially: wake up between 7 and 8, walk the 2 miles to work, start work between 8:30 and 9:30, have lunch at 12:30 at one of the various delicious buffet-style restaurants near the office, leave work between 6 and 7, then walk or bus home to either relax or go out for a drink or a movie with Tim and other new friends.

As for what I did for the 8 hours of work each day…In the beginning of the week, I spent time finishing up training and meeting with my supervisor, Michelle, to discuss my work plan for the next three months. Now I have a much clearer idea of what I’ll be doing here. As the Student Services Assistant, I’m going to spend the next three months advising three student organizations (the community service club, the student government association, and the entrepreneurship club), helping to coordinate training workshops for new student orientation in two weeks, gathering highlights and writing a report on the new student orientation, leading workshops on leadership, monitoring the student library, helping to refine GR’s monitoring and evaluation mechanisms that help us define success, teaching English to the new class of students before they enter university, and perhaps even doing some research to gather statistics on language trends, scores, and educational outcomes around Rwanda. At the same time, I’m taking over the English language program from Tim, who is sadly on his way home to the UK at this very moment (actually he’s still on a 30-hour bus ride to Tanzania, followed by a trip to Zanzibar, a bus to Mombasa, a bus to Nairobi, and finally a flight to the UK – he definitely takes the scenic route). The English language program is wrapping up so what’s left is grading exams and tying up loose ends. Later in the year, I will be one of two English language teachers for the semester from January to August, which is a new challenge I’m looking forward to.

I spent the rest of the week meeting new students, transitioning into my position of adviser for the three student organizations, helping Tim wrap up a project in which students write letters thanking GR donors, and grading English exams. The most entertaining parts of the week were definitely when I was grading the essays – particularly reading the responses that students wrote for the prompt “It is better to stay single than get married. Discuss.” (Examples: “Getting married is like running into a burning building that everyone else is running out of” and “I don’t like marriage because I don’t like children and I like sleeping around.”) In all seriousness, though, reading students’ answers to prompts like that one as well as ones about foreign aid, the role of the media, and street children in Rwanda gave me a very interesting lens to consider the country’s culture and politics.

Last night the students orchestrated an amazing surprise farewell party for Tim, which was replete with heartfelt goodbye speeches and, of course, lots of singing and dancing. I really enjoy contemporary Rwandan and East African music, which happens to be mostly rap and hip-hop. Some of my favorite songs at the moment are: “You” by Kitoko, “Inkoramutima” by Meddy, and “Jujju” by Radio & Weasel. At the party there was an incredibly adorable and superhumanly energetic 3-year-old boy seriously breaking it down – he put all of us to shame. If I ever find an internet connection that allows me to upload my photos, I’ll definitely put up the gems of him.

This morning after Tim left I decided, after much internal debate, that I would change rooms and take over his. Although mine did have a great energy, his has a great master bathroom and is twice the size of my original one. So I’m all moved in and spread out and I think I’ve recreated the energy here – as long as I have some natural light and hot pink sheets (they’ve really grown on me) I’m happy. In a few minutes I’m heading to the airport to greet a new volunteer and housemate, Caitlin. She’ll be here for 6 months working on the career development side of GR. I’m looking forward to having a housemate – I couldn’t live in or manage this huge palace myself.

Tomorrow Mary and I (and perhaps Caitlin if she’s up for it) are heading to the town of Kibuye, a beautifully lush town on Lake Kivu. It’s known as one of the less-touristy vacation spots in the country and my Rwanda guide describes it as “the most conventionally pretty of the lake ports…sprawling across a series of hills interwoven with the lagoon-like arms of the lake.” Very intriguing. Sadly it was also the prefecture of Rwanda that experienced the most devastating slaughter of Tutsis during the genocide. We’re staying over one night because Monday is a national holiday for Paul Kagame’s official inauguration.

I’m sure I’ll have an eventful weekend to recount, so stay posted. Happy Labor Day!

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