27 Sept 2014
As I mentioned in a previous post, Pastor Emmanuel asked me to teach English and music at the pre-school run by the Lutheran parish of Rukira once a week. This was my first week. I don’t believe I’d really paused to think about what I was in for, but it wouldn’t have made a difference if I had: I would inevitably be overwhelmed by the task at hand in some way or another.
I left Martin’s house on an ancient bicycle at 7:45 on Monday, my bag bound to a rack over the rear tire by a thick stretchy rubber band. I wobbled along the dusty vermillion road that serves at the main thoroughfare in my neighborhood, greeting the usual stares, double-takes, and looks of amusement with a friendly “Mwaramutse!” Much like in my Mom’s hometown of Cottonwood, Minnesota, it is not only normal but almost expected to offer a friendly greeting to nearly everyone you encounter, no matter whether you know them or not. The single gear and the thick slightly misaligned wheels of the bicycle make the gentlest uphill slope towards the church a challenge (or maybe I’m just out of shape). For the most part the road is free of major bumps, the morning air is still brisk, and the atmosphere is somehow made more comfortable by the cool green of the banana trees. It is a pleasant 2-kilometer ride.
As I reached the church, I was greeted by seventy children, ages 3-6, flocking around me as I stepped off my bike. They never seem to tire of shouting my name (or “muzungu” if they haven’t learned it), reaching to touch me or shaking my hand. I only wonder if in their eyes I am more like a superhero or a zoo animal; but, as my country coordinator suggested to me, both of those concepts are probably unfamiliar to them. A lanky 24-year-old man with a pointy nose emerges and beckons the children to form four orderly lines to prepare for the classroom. The man, Mabano, is one of the three teachers for these seventy kids (that is, including me); the other teacher is very ill, so for now it’s just the two of us. Mabano led the children in some chants and sent them into two classrooms: one for the the 5-6 year-olds, and the other for the “baby class,” 3-4 years old. The older group would be mine for the next forty-five minutes.
As the tots filed into their long desks (four to a desk), I wrote “Hello,” “How are you?,” “I am fine,” “Sit,” “Stand,” “Listen,” and a few other important words on the board with the Kinyarwanda translations— doubting they can read any of it, but wanting them to see the words. Mabano enters the room, and commands them to shout in unison, “GOOD MORNING TEACHER,” and in response to my “How are you?,” “I AM FINE THANK YOU TEACHER.” Mabano leaves the room to teach the other class, but somehow finds time to come back every five minutes or so on discipline patrol, occasionally using a footlong stick to swat a naughty child. As much as I despised this technique of terror, I didn’t tell him to stop; instead, I opted for the non-violent approach as my own. The students and I spent much of the first class (and the rest of the week) learning that when I say “Listen,” I mean kumva (“to listen/hear”), kwicara (“to sit”), ceceka, ntimukwiriye kuvuga (“silence, you must not talk”), and amabako hano (“arms here,” and I put my arms at my sides.) When a child is still doing what pre-schoolers do— climbing on the chair, crawling under the chair, grabbing his/her neighbor, playing with his/her shoes, turning around to talk, playing with a scrap of garbage or a tiny shard of chalk— I simply walk to them and make the command at eye contact.
The period seemed to move quickly as we practiced “listen,” “sit/stand,” and our greetings; but I was relieved when 8:45 arrived. Then Mabano cheerily said, “Okay, now time for the baby class!” He informed me that, although they had only told me one hour a week, they wanted me to teach 2-3 hours for four days a week. In the moment as I walked to the next class for Round 2, I was livid; I felt that they were taken advantage of me. But later, it struck me that, with the negative connotations of the phrase removed, “taking advantage of me” is exactly what they should do to me this year, and I them.
Each class has been better than the last. I’ve been singing the alphabet with them, drawing pictures and acting out Axes and Balls and Cats and Dogs and Ears and Fish to give some basic vocabulary words, and always reviewing “Listen.” On Friday, we stood in a circle in the dirt courtyard singing “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes.” I doubt they’ll remember any of the words come Monday; but at this point I’m more concerned that they know that I care.