The first weeks at a Peace Corps post are stressful. Wonderful, too, of course, but stressful.
By not posting here during that special time of impaired judgement, I’ve spared you the vicarious experience of my stresses. At this point I can be pleasant about them. I figure this was a good call. So what happened in the darkness of those four weeks?
I have settled into my beautiful home, and slowly acquired things that I had needed immediately. There’s a limit to how much I can carry here from Kigali by bus and to how many times I can get to Kigali around the edges of my work. But now, on my locally acquired new mattress I have sheets and a blanket. An enormous improvement, I assure you. I have fry pans and a saucepan, and I aspire to a larger saucepan. Having it would just set me up to confront the puzzle of whether it’s really a good idea to make a larger pot of soup under conditions where there is no refrigeration. The stove thing isn’t solved. I have a burner mounted on a propane tank, and it allows me to cook, if I stand by it and manually regulate the gas flow so that it doesn’t provide flames several inches high. The prospect of simmering up a pot of beans (from the dry beans that are staple here) has me envisioning literally hours of valve-duty. I prefer to move into problem solving mode. There has to be a better way. The likely solution is to acquire an actual burner device with a valve of its own, that attaches by hose to the propane tank. Then the valve on the propane tank can BE full-on and there’s no problem. This device is surely available somewhere, but in my outlander haze it is not yet clear to me where to get it. Kigali definitely has it, Ruhango may have it. Here’s hoping.Ah, you’re thinking, why not ask? Right. Priorities. With my limited language skills and limited contacts, I have more pressing issues. More about that another time.
In the early days and weeks there seems to be a natural tendency to give extra attention to cautions and possible dangers. I’ve been learning to deal with water filtration and purification and realizing there’s not much water in the urn when the water supply went out. The water can be out for a few days. I’m getting better at making decisions of when to resort to the back-up supply of water in the plastic garbage can and when to wait it out for water from the pipe. I am realizing that the first hours of water, when it comes back on, are so silty that it’s madness to wash clothes: the rinse water makes them dirtier than when I started. And all these things have simple solutions that aren’t simple until I blundered into the problems and fought my way to the other side. Prevention. Always have a clean dish on hand to dip water from the back-up garbage can. Always restart the filtration and beaching of water when the drinking water urn is down to half its capacity. Don’t use the stainless steel water bottle brought from the US because bleach-purified water corrodes stainless steel and gives the water a hideous metallic taste. Be aware that when laundry is started it may be a while until water is available to rinse it. Same song, next verse deals with electricity outages which occur several times a day, as the battery on my laptop crackled and had to be abandoned so when the power goes out the work I’m doing on the course I’m to teach, is lost. A new battery is on the way from the US, thanks Liz.
These cautionary and safety concerns take up an inordinate amount of space in my brain in the first weeks. It’s hard-wired. And it’s transient.
Moving to loftier concerns, I’m enjoying my course preparation massively. The course will be Oral Literature and Poetry for the practicing teachers who come to the college on the weekend to upgrade their practices and their credentials. Before it could start, I was to prepare the lesson plans and exercises for the entire course, in writing, and submit them for approval. That’s done. If all goes well we will begin instruction Friday evening at 5:30. That’s two days off. I say “if all goes well” because last week we were scheduled to begin on Friday evening and I had a call Friday afternoon postponing it to this week. I don’t know why. The enrollment was to have been under 20 students, which would have been fine with the texts I had brought from the US. However, the college has combined two sections so that the course will have 40 students. It’s oral literature, so the first assignment is to read a picture book aloud to us in class, but that’s challenging with 40 people trying to see the pages. I had to acquire a lot more books. The Rwandan National Library allows us to check out books, but only 5 at a time. A PCR peer (thanks Clare) has checked out 5 for me. I found the one bookstore in Kigali and bought almost literally every picture book they had, and I have almost enough books. Then I had to photograph every page of every book and make slide sets from them, so that the visuals can be projected during the reading so that everyone can follow along. The longer books will be shared by two readers and suddenly I have enough books. Happy dance.
Imagine the fun of assembling texts for speeches for the second assignment. Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Emma Watson at the UN, Michelle Obama, Gandhi, MLK, JFK, Marian Wright Edleman, King George’s 1939 radio address, Julia Gillard’s 2016 Misogyny Speech, Wangari Maathai, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Steve Jobs. Oh sorry. I got carried away. There are a lot more. And then I brutally cut the speeches down to under 1000 words. Students have the option of reciting a song instead, and there is a long list of suitable songs as well, ranging from traditional folk songs to Broadway show tunes to Gilbert and Sullivan. This part of my work is just flat out fun. The selection of materials continued with identification of poetry for the final recitation. (Want a side trip? How about visiting a slam poet I admire? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0A2ib_yFdU8 ) For each of these assignments students will also submit an analysis of the text, practicing the Ministry of Education’s prescribed approaches to literature: reader-response, psycho-analytic, Marxist, structuralist, and formalist.
Putting together the lesson plans and exercises was time consuming but satisfying. There are expert jigsaws, number heads, onion dialogs, gallery walk, concept attainments, concept integration, and many more strategies and models. I can’t wait to share oral literature and poetry with my candidates. What will they enjoy? What will they identify with? What will challenge them.
So that’s the story of the first four weeks from the perspective on the inside the walls of my home. The next post will take you outside to the energizing interactions with my neighbors and town-mates, and to observations of rural Rwandan life that make me so amazed and delighted to be here day by day.