A Few Frames: An African Classroom Tour

Rwanda is a small country, one that can be transversed in a day of bumpy bus rides from the beating urban heart, Kigali, to the outer edges. I spend a lot of hours on those buses, knees crushed into my backpack, surveying the thousands of rolling hills patchworked with terraced fields and dirt plots. One incredible aspect of my fellowship in this country is that I am able to travel the country, facilitating workshops for primary and secondary school teachers, dropping in at schools for day-long training seminars in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), dealing with mass classes, and materials development. It’s a tour of the nation, one classroom at a time. Here, in a few frames, are the classrooms I’ve visited throughout Rwanda (with the further-afield Tanzania and Burkina Faso thrown in for good measure).

My home base: INES-Ruhengeri, Musanze, Rwanda

At INES-Ruhengeri, I’m a lecturer for weekend classes, populated by non-traditional students who are all working primary and secondary school teachers. I often teach a night or on Saturdays, in rooms packed to the windows.


What happens when you cram 98 students into a room made for 40. Standing room only!

Classrooms are remarkably similar throughout the nation, whether you are in primary, secondary, or tertiary institutions. Boxy rooms, in a variety of rectangular shapes, painted yellow, lined with windows that serve as the HVAC when a breeze is blowing. Nearly all have chalkboards, painted onto bumpy and uneven surfaces, which cover you in chalk dust and give a bicep workout when attempting to erase.


How working mothers balance babies and books: outside daycare within earshot of the lecturer

The outdoor environment plays an important role in the Rwandan class: it helps cope with overflow of students, allowing large classes to spread out and participate in groups without the noise in the classroom reaching airplane-take-off decibel levels.


Who doesn’t prefer to work outside? Teaching demos with local realia: onions, potatoes, and beans.

Muhanga, Rwanda: ATER

Muhanga was a surprise: I got a ride to the site with the president of ATER, the Association of Teachers of English in Rwanda, and didn’t expect the hour-commute through Kigali and out of the city, winding on a typical two-lane highway to the city of Muhanga. There, I got to our classroom at a local Catholic primary school before the clouds burst open and hammered the tin roofs with the loud syncopation of January Rwandan rain. We had to stop, wait for the noise to subside, and then continued our focus on classroom materials.


Having waaaaay too much fun in Muhanga

Muhanga came with its share of glorious classroom art, including my favorite so far: a sun-faded drawing of a marionette-looking head labeled “bones of a head.” (Which, let’s be straight, is a PERFECT name for a death metal band).


Rock on, kids.

Kanombe (Kigali), Rwanda: ATER

Kanombe is a part of Kigali, far away from the city center and even beyond the airport on the main artery that runs from the center of town. I scoffed when my moto driver quoted a price of 1500RWF, but realized, 25 minutes into the ride and still not at the destination, that 1500 was a fair price. In Kanombe, I taught two different programs, two months apart. One classroom, at a private school, was bare-boned, only tables and chairs, with banal graffiti scratched into the typical yellow paint.


Think, pair, and share: every teacher’s go-to discussion technique

The other, a back room at a public institution, was presided over by President Paul Kagame, whose dour portrait hangs over many a government office. His somber countenance contrasted with the lively dramas that the teachers put on, practicing warm-ups that help students see the lightness and humor that can be a part of language learning.


In the words of my friend Jessica, “someone needs to straighten him out!” 

Akilah Women’s Institute, Kigali Rwanda 

I first heard of Akilah Women’s Institute through the book Rwanda, Inc. The institution is the first of its kind in Rwanda: for women, to provide leadership training and real-world skills. I applied for a job with them prior to accepting the fellowship, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to collaborate with them since arriving in Rwanda in September. Through lengthy correspondence with the principle, I count myself fortunate to be asked to facilitate a workshop on Peer Observation for Professional Development, resulting in one of the best experiences among six months of trainings.

The school itself is plastered with signs and posters encouraging positivity and self-actualization of the principles taught at the school. Work hard, push yourself, believe in yourself, fight for yourself: you are worthy, you are important, you are the next generation of leaders and decision-makers. Or, in this sample from our room on the second floor with windows that opened out onto a view of Kigali’s hillsides, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you can start to be great!”


Little things make the difference: continual encouragement towards success

Ready for Reading, Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

So many Rs! A friend of mine, Keilah, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) working at the University of Kigali, made our way across the country to Rwinkwavu, deep in the east of the country for a two-day workshop for local teachers. Rwinkwavu is known throughout the country as the site of a Partners in Health hospital, an organization founded by the incredible and inimitable Paul Farmer. The workshop was held at Reading for Reading, a nonprofit which works to encourage literacy in a country where reading, especially at an early age, isn’t so common. The classes were held in a library, a room with a high ceiling that grew warm and sleepy by 2pm.


Still awake, thankfully

Is there a more perfect place for teacher training than in a room surrounded by bookshelves? At my university, the library stacks are kept behind a desk staffed (guarded?) by librarians. To walk and browse through book titles, leisurely picking up a few? An important aspect to literacy, I would argue.


Remember this one from childhood? Gorgeous oil paintings and a story in the African context. 

Zanzibar, Tanzania: ZAPETO

In December, my supervisor out of the Dar es Salaam embassy asked myself and two other English Language Fellows to assist with a workshop for the Zanzibar English Teacher’s Association (abbreviated as ZAPETO), the sister organization of ATER. Professional teacher organizations are a newer phenomenon on the African continent, but with the (now) three I’ve worked with, I’ve been impressed with the teachers’ commitment to raising the professional status of their fields. Teachers need this empowerment: teachers who feel as though they belong to a professional community have access to resources for continual improvement and feel the sense of pride and importance in what they are doing. At least, that’s my opinion on the subject. Zanzibar, which one day I will write about in far more detail, was a swim through a heady cultural milieu of Arabic and Indian and African, all mixed together. The classroom was no different, one which I wrote more about in an earlier post.


The simple beauty of Zanzibari classroom: dark wood, colorful headscarves.

The classroom at a local primary school (public, though religion permeates much of everyday life on the island), was painted a refreshing white, with ornate iron curlicues as security bars on the windows. Everywhere was dark wood, probably gleaned from the island itself to line the doorways and construct the tables.


The tail end of a feline visitor.

Ougadougou, Burkina Faso: BETA

In the final tour stop, we arrive at the linguistic mouthful of a capital of West African nation of Burkina Faso: Ouagadougou. I was in the city for my program’s midyear meeting, a happy event spent in hotel conference rooms and around the pool, commiserating and R&R-ing with my fellow ELFs from 14 other African countries. Our week of educational revelry ended with a conference hosted by the Burkina English Teachers’ Association (BETA), the professional organization for teachers in the country. Teachers came from all over the arid nation to listen to my co-fellows and I present topics we hoped were relevant for their experience. The venue was a fancy one: part of a university with air-conditioned (!!!) rooms with computers and projectors (!!!!) and SMART BOARDS (!!!!!!!!!!!!!). By far, the most technological room I have entered in six months. Decorating the rooms, though, were posters created by English learners who attended classes there. Most were focused on children’s rights, as with this lovely sample.


The rights listed- how often do we think about these? So many of them we take for granted in the United States, or I even take for granted as I speak with teachers throughout my Traveling Teacher Training Circus. To privacy, to have an education, to health, to have an identity, to give opinions, to be alive.

And this poster says it better than I ever could: this is the purpose of education, this is the value of the academic experience in classrooms across this continent and the world. To provide an environment that teaches about and encourages health- mental, physical, and emotional, that encourages development and importance of the individual and their access to privacy and identity, and, so importantly, the necessity to express one’s identity through opinions. These classrooms, these seemingly bare, yellow-painted rooms, represent the potential when they are filled with active learners and dedicated teachers.

I have the best job. Ever.

Love from Rwanda and elsewhere,



2 thoughts on “A Few Frames: An African Classroom Tour

  1. Hi Leane: Wow….your final paragraph gave me the chills! So well said! Can I reference you in some writing I’m doing? Imagine….education actually about human development instead of corporate greed, which is decimating US schools! Thanks for the mini-vacation! Have a great Friday, Cathrene Dr. Cathrene Connery Associate Professor of Education Ithaca College Department of Education 194B Phillips Hall Annex 953 Danby Road Ithaca, New York 14850 Cconnery@ithaca.edu


  2. Pingback: Rutted Roads & Nightime Hippos: A Weekend in Akagera | a thousand hills from home

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