I spent the month of October interning with JAM International at Fred Nkunda Technical Secondary School in Muhanga, Rwanda. At the school, students can choose to study in one of three vocational areas (in addition to earning a diploma): Hotel Operations, Motor Vehicle Mechanics, and Construction. JAM also offers a vocational training center where students study one year for a certificate in Tailoring, Hair Dressing, or Motor Vehicle Mechanics. My primary job was teaching English as a second language to the students (ages 15-20). This consisted not only teaching classes, but also participating in the school’s English club, writing/proctoring/grading exams, and helping the teachers with their English.
Everyone spoke English at some level, but the teachers were not native speakers and the students were not fluent. From my outside perspective, education would be more successful if classes were taught in Kinyarwanda. The students would comprehend more information rather than struggling to translate their notes, but I understand the benefit of speaking English to their hopes for future jobs. It’s a challenge for me to understand a Rwandan technical school coming from an American liberal arts college. Some aspects of their education (specifically language issues and the vast number of poor grades) bother me, and I’m not sure if it bothers the part of me that is an ethnocentric American or the part that is a teacher who cares about students.
Every time I began to teach a new class, the students would immediately want to touch my hair and skin. Some of the male students even asked for my hand in marriage. It was strange to think that the way they reacted to me was largely due to the fact that I am a mzungu (white person). In America, I am used to people of all races, religions, and cultures. Here, everyone’s cultural identity is the same, and they share a collective sense of “Rwandan-ness” Although I am grateful for being exposed to many different ways of life in America’s “melting pot,” I wish I felt as bound to my culture the way Rwandans to do theirs.
Teaching English has its challenges, especially because I know so little Kinyarwanda. One day I was teaching the oldest students about adjectives and adverbs. I explained that adjectives describe nouns (a person, place, or thing), while adverbs describe a verb (something to do). This worked quite well, and the students wrote sentences like “He spoke French fluently” and “The boy is quick.” We encountered a hitch a when someone said “The singing is loudly.” They insisted that the sentence called for an adverb because singing is something to do. Explaining gerunds to American students is difficult enough, let alone someone in the stages of learning English. I explained that adding “the” to the beginning and “-ing” to the end of a verb make it a noun.
The final week of October, I met with the “Senior Six” (final year of secondary school) students daily to help them prepare for their national English exam. We went in-depth with topics including active/passive voice, direct/indirect speech, adjectives/adverbs, if clauses, and comparatives/superlatives. Some of the more advanced students practiced reading comprehension. It was so rewarding to see them apply the grammar skills we studied.
On Oct. 24, I visited HRD, a school for children with disabilities, where my friend Natalie was teaching. Being around cute little kids who desired nothing but hugs, stickers, and bubbles was a drastic change from the teenagers at JAM. Some of the students are deaf. I don’t know much sign language, but I said “friend,” “sister,” and “I love you,” which seemed to be sufficient. We popped bubbles, played ring around the rosy, danced the chicken dance, counted to ten in English and Kinyarwanda, and played hopscotch. Although being around such adorable little kids made for a fun day, I loved spending my month teaching teenagers and wouldn’t trade my experience with JAM for anything.