Sunday, July 22, 2007

TIA- This is Africa

It’s been three weeks since the setting of my last blog entry and the chronological congestion has been preying on my conscious like a lie I need to come clean about. I’m no longer living in Kigali, but am staying in a house at the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) compound in Kibungo, Rwanda. My cousin, Robin, and an American volunteer named Jean, arrived in Rwanda on July 7th. Robin and her husband, Pastor John, live at the LWF in Kibungo, and her project of building a secondary school is the reason I am here this summer. Robin is fun and fearless, with an inspiring ability to understand and assimilate into foreign cultures. She spent 8 years as a teacher in Japan, and for the first part of my life, I knew her only vicariously though the stories of my older sister, Helen, who visited her there. It has been wonderful to get to know her in this setting, and she is a natural teacher—both inside and outside the classroom. Jean is a tiny grandmother from Harrisonburg, Virginia, with more spunk and hutzpah than her compact height suggests. Now in her sixties, she has returned to school to get a college degree and is studying religion and community organization at James Madison University. She’s full of funny stories and has more stored-up knowledge than an almanac. With the addition of two such vibrant figures, the group dynamic has changed dramatically, and Maria and I find ourselves swept into long post-dinner discussions about liturgy, culture clashes, and puppy (or rather owner) training.

Contrary to how it may appear in this diary, I did not come to Africa to climb snow-capped equatorial mountains and sight-see. I came on a grant sponsored by the 100 Projects for Peace Foundation to catalogue, label, and assemble a small library in Rwamagana, Rwanda. Like many countries in Africa, Rwanda has an appalling shortage of books. There is not a single public library in the country (although one is currently being constructed in Kigali) and the only bookstore I’ve heard of is a Christian bookstore in downtown Kigali. It seems as if a person’s best chance to study English is by reading a bible (the only book readily available here) or surfing the net. For a country with an enormous potential to develop and with such a divisive past to overcome, education—and especially a command of the English language is critical. The people and the government know this all too well. The Rwandan government is increasingly pushing the Rwandan people to pursue the English language, and the push is hardly needed—everyone I’ve met here appreciates the value of education and embraces it whole-heartedly as a means to escape poverty and improve the lifestyles of their families.

For the past six months, I’ve been purchasing, collecting, and shipping books and supplies for a library that will be a part of the secondary school Robin is building here. She plans to commence classes in January of 2008, but as of now, there are no physical buildings. My summer goal is to collect all the boxes of books from the Kigali Post Office and truck them to Kibungo, where I can catalog, label, and organize them all into big boxes than can be easily transplanted onto library shelves in Rwamagana when the time comes.

I’ve encountered one major problem in my plans…the books and most of the materials haven’t arrived here in Rwanda yet. The first shipment of two thousand pounds of books was mailed from California in March. The second shipment of books, I sent from the Lexington Post Office in April, and the library supplies were shipped priority from Harrisonburg in early June. All of the books were sent via m-bag delivery—a method of shipment for paper-products only that costs about a fifth of the standard shipping price and purports to take 6-8 weeks for delivery. You cannot purchase shipping insurance on m-bags, nor can you track shipments, but Robin has used this method frequently and has never had any trouble…until now. Once a week, I take a bus from Kibungo to Kigali to check our P.O. Box. I’m confident that the books will arrive sometime soon, and I’ve adopted the acronym from the movie, Blood Diamond, to cope with the delay…TIA—“this is Africa”.

Luckily, I sent some books and materials in Robin and Jean’s luggage because their airline permitted 50 more pounds than British Airways allowed me. So I have about 50 books, a stack of DVDs, a few bags of science and math-related instruments, and some art supplies that Robin collected to catalog. I have no prior experience with setting up libraries and am teaching myself as I go from two books—the first is a massive volume on Dewey Decimal System classifications, and the second is a thinner book titled, Small Library Cataloging. I teach Maria as I teach myself so the project will be sustainable. I’m incredibly fortunate that she’s here, can speak fluent English, and truly wants to learn. Thankfully, many of the skills will be useful to her in life. This week, I taught her how to use Microsoft Excel—how to enter data, how to sort columns alphabetically, how to classify a title starting with a conjunction, e.g. Wrinkle in Time, A. and where to find the Dewey Decimal classification in books with newer copyrights. I’ve purchased two lap-top computers and a printer for the library and am showing her how to use them as well. Some of the grant money has been set aside to pay a student-librarian for a three-year work study position. If the books don’t arrive soon, it looks like Maria will either fill this position herself, or I’ll allot a portion of the money to pay her to train someone after I’m gone.

But even without the books, I’ve found that life has mysterious ways of working itself out, and my time here has been incredibly fulfilling. Robin was summoned back to America after only a week back in Rwanda to complete her missionary training, and Jean and I have taken over teaching her English class. After my teaching experience last summer in South Africa, I thought I’d never get to make this statement again, but teaching this class in Rwamagana is most inspiring thing I’ve ever done.

The inspiration starts with Robin. As if spearheading the planning, fundraising for, and construction of a secondary school isn’t enough work for one person, for the past six months, she has been travelling the hour-long distance to Rwamagana three days a week to offer free English classes to those who truly wish to learn. She is not discriminatory about age, and the class ranges from a nine-year old girl that comes after her primary school lets out to a married mother of six. After a few weeks of teaching, so many people started showing up for her class that she had to start turning some away. The current roll-call is 42 students, all of whom pack into a small classroom with equivalently small chairs at a local primary school. There are electricians, farmers, pastors, college hopefuls, and many unemployed persons in the class—all of whom view English as their ticket out of poverty. It’s a sobering inspiration to think about the hope and determination of these people compared to the way in which many Americans (myself included) take education for granted. Only a small handful have had the chance to attend secondary school, whereas there was never even a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t attend college. These people survived a genocide, picked up the pieces of their lives, and somehow found enough determination to return to school to learn a language that is barely spoken in their country, but holds the promise of a new beginning. I have no idea if any of them will be able to make those changes—if they’ll learn enough English to communicate well or if they’ll be able to find jobs in such a dry market, but I do know that even if only for a few weeks, I’m lucky to be a part of their lives.

More on the class, various marriage proposals, and other funny experiences I’ve had during these past few weeks later.


Joan and Warren said...

Logan! You and Jean have given us some wonderful insights and terrific reading these past few weeks. We find ourselves hungering for more - more - more!

John should be on his way back to Rwanda as I write, so there'll be plenty to do in the next few weeks.

You all (and I include Maria in this) seem to be having a great time, and we look forward to the next installment.

Love, Joan

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jtd said...

Sounds like things are going great for you, Logan... by most of the important metrics. I am sure books will arrive -- I just hope some do while you are there so you have the chance to see that happen.

Take care -- and enjoy the music. It may sound like hyperactive pinball machines right now, but I'll bet you will miss it when you're back in these parts.