Three Questions & Thirteen Hours

I’ve heard these three questions, typically the first three that I’m asked, about a dozen times now at INES-Ruhengeri, my institution for this year through the English Language Fellows program. Let’s clear up a few things first.

  1. Musanze, this city/district, isn’t large. Everyone seems to know each other, and there are some ex-pats, but it’s not Kigali with its rainbow of human diversity.
  2. INES-Ruhengeri is a private Catholic university. All (at least every single one I have seen/met) of the administrators are male, and many are ranked members in the Catholic Church. The university president- the Rector- is a priest. Even in my department, English and French Education, fields typically dominated by women (or at least with women well-represented), there is one female faculty member out of eight.

So, the three questions? This afternoon, I was in the middle of my marathon teaching weekend (more about that in a moment), and one of the other faculty members, a professor who is also a well-ranked administrator, came into my class as I was going through the groups, explaining an assignment. He had informed his class, something with management, that an American instructor was teaching at the university for the year. They wanted to meet me, oddity that I am, and I agreed. In front of the class, he introduced me briefly and gave the students, non-traditional weekenders, a moment to ask me questions. And all three, in that perfect order that I have now experienced so many times, came forth.

  1. Are your married?
  2. How old are you?
  3. What religion are you?

It’s kind of remarkable, right? Just think about the massive cultural gap here. Those three questions are literally, and I don’t tend to use that word often, the exact topics that you do not ask in America. And, please remember, that I was just introduced as a college professor to a university classroom full of business students. I don’t take offense at it, though I tire of answering it, but it’s one of those moments that, as a traveller, you come across and just shake your head. A very, very different place.

I’ve come to the conclusion that being (somewhat) young and female and unmarried, at least in this corner of Rwanda, is unusual. I know several other women around my age; they have husbands and children. If I respond that I’m single, which I’ve stopped doing (deflect, deflect), they want to know if I’m at least engaged. Apparently, one older woman on a mutatu bus told me, wearing a ring (any ring) denotes that you are married. I wear two- I guess that makes me a reverse polygamist.

On Friday, my first day of teaching, my students asked the same questions. Marital status, religion, age. I tried to explain that in American culture (or, really, in English-speaking culture in general), these are personal questions that we don’t ask in a professional or academic context. It was at that moment that I really started to grasp the level of my students’ listening comprehension. After my little PC-diatribe, they looked back at me like a pack of deer in the headlights. “Teacher,” they told me, “Your pronunciation is so bad.” I laughed.


The calm before the storm: My classroom

I believe in extreme honesty, and there’s no other way to say it: my first thirteen (and a half) hours of teaching were rough. Like first-day-of-teaching-ever rough. Teaching is not an easy job to begin with, and I will happily blacken the eye of anyone who says otherwise. You get to spend hours preparing your lessons, more hours presenting them (while being on constant vigilance to keep the class focused, motivated, learning, remembering, processing, and even a little entertained), then go home to grading, student emails, and administrative paper pushing. That’s my American cycle. Here, there are similarities. And, of course, differences.

  1. My teaching schedule was confirmed Monday, five days ago. I started teaching on Friday.
  2. I was told I would have up to 20 First Year English students. Seven showed up. Twenty minutes into the class, I was given another 45 students, First Year Biotechnology majors. All students present speak a little English, from what I can gather any thing from a Beginning level to Low-Advanced. That makes 52. In a small, echoing, cement-floored classroom.
  3. BYO Paper & BYO Materials
  4. Here’s the kicker: this class is part of the weekend program. It runs for 35 hours total. Which means… 4.5 hours on Friday (5:00-9:45pm) and 8 on Saturday (8:15-4:00pm) for two and a half weeks. That’s 13.5 hours in a 24 hour period. Or at least I think it is. I counted it this morning while stumbling back to school after what seemed like 17 minutes at home to sleep.

All of this experience is an exercise in modifying/gently lowering/decimating one’s expectations. In these two days of class, I have alternately attempted to 1) follow the curriculum (a very brief, skeletal document that required I teach everything from greetings to the paragraph to essays to media studies) and 2) laugh and consider chucking the document out the window and just show Muppet videos. To meet all of the curriculum objectives seems impossible, unless I am willing to give my blood, sweat, and tears (and possibly help them cheat on the final exam). To give an idea of where the class, for the most part, is at, we learned brainstorming and outlining today. I attempted to coerce them to take that material and write three paragraphs, but was handed several papers with bulleted outlines recopied for me. I broke my cardinal rule and resorted to asking a student to translate into Kinyarwanda: it turns out that “essay” is the same word, just with French inflection. That was not the only moment where they struggled to understand my directions, even with me using my most patient, slow, low-level English vocabulary. They haven’t had teachers with American or British accents, and like many Rwandans, are far more accustomed to English spoken with a French accent- hence my “bad” pronunciation. It was hard.

I say that these days were rough not because the class was low-level, but because I felt incompetent, as though nothing I could do or say to them could be understood. I was back to the beginning  of my career, struggling to cope, without my years of experience and my creativity and all of my teacherly assets.

I realized as I walked home, exhausted beyond belief with feet and throat aching from standing and screeching for hours, that I’ve officially slunk out of the honeymoon stage and slid into the “becoming very frustrated and cranky with differences” stage. Culture shock, for those of you who haven’t lived outside of your home country for more than a month, is not a load of soft science ballyhoo. It’s a measurable cycle that has plagued me (like every other human, whether they can/will admit it or not) on every adventure I’ve had. The graphic below is courtesy of Northeastern University, and you can read a little more about the stages of dreaded CS here.

Cultural Curve

Strangely, every time I’ve experienced culture shock, I haven’t immediately identified it as such. My frustration in the classroom- I blamed that on not being prepared enough, not trying hard enough, not being competent enough. But it’s not any of those things: it’s attempting to adjust to a different place and struggling to fit in and function. You body and mind need time, grace, and understanding to change lifelong habits and routines to fit into a new place.

It gets better- I know it gets better. Even at the end of the lesson, a student named Claude came up to me. He wanted to know if I could help him find a scholarship for studying in America. It felt like a return to my territory, moving back into a place of familiarity, knowing that I was able to help this person, even after 13 hours of what felt like dragging 52 young Rwandans behind me, the essay our unreachable goal. We chatted, I told him I would email him websites, and he shook my hand happily. I began my walk home, the afternoon rain halted for twenty minutes, enough time for me to be back under my own roof.


And the sun sets behind the volcanos, and life goes on… and I’m better prepared for my next teaching marathon. All thirteen hours of it.

Love and peace from Musanze.


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