Written by: Sybille Nkunzimana

Whenever I walk to school, I feel as though I am glimpsing something that is so close yet so far.

I walk down the red dirt hill from Mukecuru’s [grandmother] house to meet my teaching colleague, and we continue together silently, sometimes chatting about how steep the hills are or how difficult it is to walk with a heavy backpack.

Each morning as we make our way to school, we are joined by masses of students in cobalt blue uniforms, seemingly identical but differentiated by discolored button-downs or mysterious stains. Drowning in waves of “good morning teachah” or “Muzungu!” [white person or foreigner], I arrive at the school, sweaty and conspicuous. Even though my father is from the very same village in Rwanda where I am teaching, I never learned the language and so I am unable to communicate with most of the students. Every morning, students who arrive on time stand in organized lines one behind the other according to their grade. Sometimes, students or faculty will read passages from the Bible. Other times, they will listen to the radio and learn about current events in their community as I stand behind them in the filtered light of the morning, sweat dripping down my back.

Students who arrive late on the other hand, are locked out from the main yard, and must listen to assembly from behind the rickety metal gate. Once they are let in, they are subject to public whippings with an old stick by the school prefect. One time, students had to line up and frog jump back and forth from one side of the playground to the other. Though this punishment may seem bizarre, I don’t get the impression that it is at all malicious. The practice of disciplining children and teenagers looks different everywhere, and in a culture where the youth are expected to be silently subservient, this kind of thing, though admittedly mean and slightly humiliating, is somehow fitting. Having observed the relationships between authority figures and children in previous trips to Rwanda, I have noticed that kids fully expect to be disciplined in such a way. My father has even told me stories about how petrified he was of various teachers at his school when he was a boy, and about how he would walk in the other direction if he saw one of them coming his way.

Growing up in Haiti, my school experience was quite different from my father’s. Though students were still scared of the teachers, there were many other things that were vastly different to school in Rwanda. For one, I would not be able to cite one time I have ever walked to school back home as it has always been too dangerous. When I was given the opportunity to teach at my father’s old elementary school, I knew that my eyes would be opened to an entirely different way of life. I knew that I would be gaining a deeper understanding of the place my father fled in the early nineties, which has now become my safe haven.

Despite my best efforts to blend in, I always seem to be the center of attention. It is my understanding that most of the students have rarely seen a mixed-race person, so they are all either fascinated or confused by my presence. Either way, people’s interest in me and where I came from mostly manifests itself in hundreds of tiny handshakes and fist bumps, or questions and comments presented to me on a dare.

After assembly, I follow the four and five-year-olds as they march down the hill singing songs and nursery rhymes, making their way to the classroom. I noticed that some of these tunes carry morals or important life advice. My favorite one has to be the poem about “saying your prayers” before “combing your hairs” and “saying good morning daddy” before “washing your body.”

Most days, especially when the kids are feeling tired, it is hard to tell what anyone is truly thinking due to the language barrier. When I first met the head nun at the school, one of the first things she told me was that very few of the students understood even the most basic English. After hearing this, I decided to discard every lesson I had planned before my arrival as I knew that the kids would not understand. Consequently, every afternoon after school, I found myself frantically planning out new lessons which consisted mostly of vocabulary and arts and crafts. The most popular sessions were the ones where students learned how to construct model rockets out of plastic water bottles “Ichupa,” or toy airplanes out of paper “impapuro.” In addition to the communication issue, Rwandans are not known for being expressive in the same way as westerners. In my experience, the people I have interacted with are not the kind to compliment you to your face or laugh at your jokes out of courtesy. In fact, many people get shy or embarrassed when flattered. I have even witnessed someone walk away silently after receiving a compliment. However, this does not impede people from showing appreciation. My one reassurance that what I am doing is productive is the almost daily messages I get from my colleague telling me about how the kids were in an uproar after my departure, or about how other students are jealous that I am not teaching them. I knew I was doing something right when I read a very blunt and unexpected “I love you” in the middle of one of her messages.

Though receiving affirmations such as this felt empowering in the moment, after a while it became hard to escape a feeling of “us and them.” Before traveling to Rwanda, I consulted many different people I know who had had similar teaching experiences in different parts of the world, asking them for advice on how to blend in and avoid feeling too much like a foreigner. I did not want to feel as though I would be imposing on a lifestyle where I did not belong. If you take a moment to think about it, I am just a fifteen-year-old with no previous teaching experience, trying to learn more about the people I might have been closer to in an alternate universe. In this alternate universe, I might have grown up in Rwanda, spoken the language, and better understood my family and my culture. One of the most significant things I observed during this experience is that we humans are all the same. No matter where you are in the world, you will meet people who work hard, are curious, and who “say their prayers and comb their hairs.”

Going into my time teaching, I was afraid that I would be perceived as presumptuous and disconnected from the community. But now, nearing the end of my time in Rwanda, I realize that things were never that simple. I am only now realizing that I have come full circle. My father was also once a four or five-year-old student at the very same school where I was teaching, and now, after all this time, his family is getting to see what his life once was. All my preconceived notions about revisiting my lost culture seem to have vanished, blowing through the air across Rwanda’s thousand hills, and settling into the red dirt of Rutongo.

Sybille Nkunzimana is a writer of Canadian and Rwandan origin from Haiti. She was 16 years old when she wrote this piece. She views her craft as the ultimate way to dissect her feelings on the road to discovering what they mean to her. Sybille finds that almost anything can be made clearer if it is expressed and understood to the fullest extent.

Next Post: The Storm that Sets Us Free