Teaching English in Rwanda: Elizabeth

I’m not the only member of my family who lives abroad! Today I’m excited to introduce my cousin Elizabeth, an adventurous gal with a passion for development policy. She’s spent time in France, Cameroon, Togo, and now Rwanda, where she is currently teaching English in Rwanda with the Peace Corps*. Read on to hear about gender rolls in the Rwandan classroom, a computer lab that runs on a generator, and other experiences as an educational volunteer in a country that’s changing radically.

 teaching English in Rwanda

Elizabeth with friends in Rwanda

Elizabeth, I know you have degrees in International Studies as well as African Studies; how did your interest in Africa come about?

In high school, my favorite subjects were French and World Studies, and I had a few teachers who really encouraged me to pursue these passions outside of class. Mr. Larsen, my French teacher, gave me a lot of extra resources and was the first to introduce me to a program allowing high schoolers to study abroad for nearly nothing. I spent my senior year of high school living in France, which was hugely eye-opening, but I wanted to continue traveling and working in areas even more different in terms of language, culture, and everyday life. Because of my interests in French and international relations, I turned to Africa and development work. When I got to college, I pursued both – International Studies to get a background on the politics and economics of development and Africana Studies to better understand the history and culture of the continent along with the West’s relationship to the continent.

Good for you! What made you decide to join the Peace Corps?

In college, I studied abroad for a semester in Cameroon, West Africa, which helped solidify the career path I wanted. I loved living with my host family, taking classes at the local university, and working with a local NGO to combat HIV/AIDS. We lived in the capital city but in a neighborhood that was mostly comprised of locals. We lived with rather affluent families, but most of us felt we were livings as Cameroonians did. The summer after my junior year, I landed an internship with the U.S. Embassy in Togo, West Africa. I loved my job and have a great relationship with my boss, the Public Affairs Officer, but I missed a lot of what I loved about living in Cameroon. Working at the Embassy felt much more removed. I lived in a gated community on the same compound as my boss and had all the amenities of a normal American home.

The office I worked with is the one tasked with cultural outreach, so we worked the closest with Togolese, but I envied the Peace Corps volunteers I met who lived and worked in more rural areas. The more I read about development and development policy in college, I saw that a lot of policy is written by people who have never spent significant time in the rural areas their policies are supposed to affect. I believe that if I want to do development work and one day help research and formulate policy (it’s good to dream big, right?), it’s vitally important to have spent time living and working with locals in rural areas, to try to understand their language, culture, and to see what struggles and challenges they face in everyday life. When looking at post-grad options, Peace Corps seemed like the best choice.

teaching English in Rwanda

Elizabeth and friend

Well-said! Tell us about your position with the Peace Corps.

My position is a Secondary Education Volunteer. I work in a secondary school in the Western Province of Rwanda teaching English to Senior 2 (8th grade). In addition to our primary assignment as teachers, we are also expected to do secondary projects that suit our interests and skills. These can include starting clubs, workshops, camps, building libraries, planting gardens, making pineapple and mango wine, and installing water tanks for clean water. Volunteers come up with all kinds of interesting and amazing projects; it all depends on what your community needs and what you want and are able to do. I help run a couple clubs, one for English and one for girls’ leadership and health. I’ve also helped with a couple of camps for girls and am currently writing a grant to improve the resources in our library and computer lab.

Best of luck with your endeavors.  What is your teaching location like?

As I said, I live in the Western Province. I live in Karongi District in a village called Rugabano. It’s a a 20-30 minute moto-ride from the main (paved) road, one hour to Lake Kivu and about three hours to Kigali. Karongi is considered a rural district, but I live in a sector center (a sector is roughly the American equivalent to a town) on the school compound a mere ten-minute walk from the main row of shops. We don’t have electricity yet, but it’s supposed to come within the next year. Our school has a generator that we run every night and for computer class. Yes, we have a computer lab but no electricity.

They’ve recently installed several new wells in the area to reduce the amount of time people have to walk to get to clean(er) water. We have water on the school compound and there are people the school hires to bring it to our house. There are four different buildings of classrooms made of brick or cement There aren’t hallways, so think of a kind of strip mall set-up where each building has three or four classrooms, but each has a door leading directly outside. In each classroom, there are about 25 wooden desks that are about three feet long and have benches attached. Two or three students share each desk. Students stay in the same classroom while teachers rotate around throughout the day.

My school is interesting in that it’s a mixed day and boarding school. About half the students come from more affluent families in larger towns like Kibuye, Gitarama, and Kigali, while the other half live in Rugabano and go home at the end of every school day. It’s like having a school where half the kids come from New York and the other half come from Tipton, Iowa. It makes for an interesting and challenging mix of levels and cultures in one classroom.

teaching English in Rwanda

Kibuye, my regional town about an hour away where we have a bank and a post office 

Fascinating, this sounds unlike any school I’ve heard of! What’s a typical school day like for you?

Because teachers rotate, my schedule changes every day. School starts at 7:15, though generally teachers don’t begin teaching until 7:25ish. I teach anywhere from four to six hours depending on the day. I have four classes, each with about 50 students. We have two fifteen-minute breaks/day, and then the school day ends at 2:25pm. At 2:30, I go back up to my house to eat lunch with my roommates. If I have a club meeting that day, I go back down to a classroom at 4:30 for the meeting. The rest of my time, I’ll go to the village to buy food/soap/toilet paper and say hi to people, read, watch movies, hang out with friends or my roommates, and plan lessons.

What are differences in education when comparing the Rwandan system with the American?

There are a lot of differences, but part of the reason the Rwandan government invited Peace Corps to bring teachers was they want to 1) change the language of instruction from French to English and 2) incorporate a more American style of teaching in their education system. Rwanda was colonized by the German and French, and their education system reflected the French system. It’s based heavily on rote learning and memorization. In 2008, the Rwandan government decreed that the language of instruction would change to English virtually overnight. In the past five years, they’ve brought in volunteers from many different organizations to teach English to both students and teachers, but also to teach new methodology and pedagogy including more learner-centered approaches and activities. At the school level, however, most teachers use Kinyarwanda as the language of instruction and continue to teach the way they learned – rote learning and memorization with little critical thinking or problem solving. It’s difficult because while all the notes and exams are in English, most students – or teachers for that matter—don’t have a basic understanding of the language. Instead of being able to think about a problem and explain it in their own words, they memorize the definition in English given to them by the teacher and write it down word for word.

Probably the biggest difference, though, are resources – or a lack thereof. My school is lucky in that we have a computer lab and library, two things many schools still don’t have. Our library has almost exclusively text books, though. We have some novels and children’s books, but they’re in a heap in the corner. We have enough text books that students in one class could each have their own book, but most teachers only use the books to lesson plan, not in their actual classes. We have 30 computers in our computer lab, but only 15 of them work. When we do turn on the generator for class (probably once or twice a term), students have to share the computer with one or two other students, and they usually don’t get far before the generator cuts out and they have to reboot. In the classroom, we have a chalkboard, chalk, and an eraser (usually a piece of an old mattress). Volunteers get creative and make teaching aids using markers and rice sacks. When comparing to an American school, we don’t have the resources to be able to print worksheets, and there are no projectors, no labs for science experiments. So much of our learning in the States is hands-on, but most schools here simply don’t have the resources.

teaching English in Rwanda

Marking party

That sounds challenging in so many ways–not only regarding resources but also the competing schools of thought for pedagogy itself. You mentioned that you had been involved with a camp to teach girls about technology—can you elaborate on that?

I was at a school south of Kigali helping run a new camp called TechKobwa to teach girls about technology and computers. It went really well! The girls seemed to enjoy it. It was the first time many got to play around with a computer without sharing it with one or two other students. I wrote an entry about TechKobwa on my blog as well as for the Peace Corps Gender and Development Committee. We’ve had a great amount of press for it – both in Rwanda and in Peace Corps circles, which has been nice. I think the girls definitely came away with a sense of empowerment.

We brought in 48 girls from seen different schools across the country. Girls ranged in age from 15-21. They were all secondary school students (7th-12th grade), but here it’s very common not to finish secondary school until you’re in your early twenties. Most kids start late or are held back a couple times. It’s also common for girls to drop out to help at home or due to pregnancy even though there are guarantees for girls’ education by national law. It’s a work in progress, but it’s nice to see things changing and improving.

teaching English in Rwanda

Campers at TechKobwa learn to create a picture using pixels the same way a computer would

Let’s talk about girls – what is their role in traditional Rwandan society, and is that changing?

Rwanda is an interesting case in that women were thrown into leadership roles in the ’90s due to much of the male population being killed in the genocide. More than 50% of members in parliament are women, the highest in the world, and they have a high number of female ministers and government workers. They have laws specifically outlining the rights of women and girls including a guarantee of education and laws against violence and domestic abuse. In urban areas, these changes are rather apparent. You can see many women with a real sense of empowerment. They are confident, they know their rights, and they are working and succeeding in the same domains as men.

There are, however, many places where this isn’t the case. Traditionally, a women’s role in Rwanda is to get married, have children, and take care of the home. These traditional roles are most evident in the villages. When talking to my classes, there are very clear-cut gender roles. Men build things, fight, and are allowed to drink alcohol. Women take care of children, serve, and should never drink. This manifests itself in my classrooms as well. Boys are encouraged to take risks, to speak out. They are expected to be bread-winners and successful in their jobs in order to find a wife. They are most vocal in class. I have girls who are incredibly intelligent who never speak. There still isn’t an expectation that it’s important for girls to succeed in school and it’s not necessarily polite for girls or women to speak out as vocally as their male counterparts.

It is changing. Laws are in place and there is a population of strong, empowered, and vocal women who are campaigning to help girls around the country, but progress in some areas is slower than others. As volunteers, this is why we have GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) clubs and camps to teach girls about self-esteem, confidence, leadership, and sexual health and other initiatives like TechKobwa to encourage girls to pursue their interests, even if it’s in a male-dominated domain.

teaching English in Rwanda

Two girls build a machine out of LittleBits, a kind of electronic Lego

I could ask a million questions about education alone, but I’d also like to hear about living in Rwanda. What’s the population of your community and how integrated do you feel you have become?

I don’t know the exact population of my village, probably 300-400. It’s difficult to know because I live in what we call Rugabano Center. The areas surrounding the village are very rural, so many people travel in and out of the center from surrounding areas to go to the market, the health center, the local credit union, the school, or the shops. I feel pretty well integrated in my community. I live and work at the school, so most of my friends are fellow teachers or school staff, but I have many friends in the village as well so I try to visit as much as possible.I am pretty well known throughout the area and I think pretty well-liked. It’s hard to gage, but I feel really comfortable, safe, and welcome in my community.

It’s difficult because no matter how close or integrated I feel, I’ll always be an outsider in a lot of ways. Even though I like to think I’m poor on a volunteer stipend or that I’m living as Rwandans do, I’m still pretty removed from the average rural Rwandan’s life. The fact that I travel to other towns so much for meetings, that I buy bread for breakfast every morning, that as teachers we can go out and get Fantas and brochettes (meat on a stick) are all things that aren’t necessarily normal for a lot of Rwandans. I am rich and privileged in ways I have to be reminded of a lot of the time. The fact is that I wear different clothing every day, that I have regular access to clean, hot water for baths, and potatoes and rice instead of cassava or amateke (another starchy tuber). Many of my teachers have laptops and cell phones, but I have a laptop, external hard drive, iPod, smartphone, digital camera, digital video recorder, and Kindle. People can’t comprehend why one person can have so many electronics; even buying toilet paper demonstrates a certain level of privilege. So while I feel loved and welcome in my community and have good friends I adore and trust, I don’t know that I’ll ever feel really integrated, even if I lived here for 20 years.

Interesting insights, I wonder if other modern-day volunteers struggle with the same questions. Let’s talk language–I know that you speak French as well as some local Kinyarwanda. How necessary are these two languages for interacting on a daily basis and traveling around Rwanda?

I use a combination of English, French, and Kinyarwanda every day. As I’ve said, Rwanda changed its national language from French to English, so English can get you around pretty well. In larger towns, someone could easily get around knowing only English. In rural areas, though, I rely pretty heavily on French and Kinyarwanda. At the school, all of my colleagues have at least a secondary-school education and speak at least basic English or French. I try to speak English at school to help with its use as the language of instruction. In the village, those who are educated and grew up in the French system still understand and speak French. Plus, there are many Congolese in my area who also speak French. Those who are uneducated tend to only speak Kinyarwanda. To connect with people and show you’re really making an effort, Kinyarwanda is essential. It surprises people and shows you’re really trying to be a part of their community.

Making an effort to speak the local language is a terrific idea, no matter which part of the world you happen to be! What are some other customs to be aware of when visiting Rwanda?

Greeting and cleanliness are the most essential customs as a foreigner in Rwanda. Greeting, or how you acknowledge people, is very important before striking up a conversation or buying something. To walk in a store without greeting the shopkeeper is very rude. If Kinyarwanda is intimidating, most people know the basic greetings in English. As you walk down the street, even small primary children will yell, “GOOD MORNING TEACHER! HOW ARE YOU? I’M FINE THANK YOU!”

Cleanliness is also extremely important in Rwandan culture, regarding particularly feet and shoes. Anyone who has traveled throughout Africa will marvel at the general cleanliness of Rwanda. Wear clean clothes and shoes and wash your shoes often to clear any mud or dust, and Rwandans will have much more respect for you as you show more respect for their culture.

Great insights, Elizabeth, I learned a ton about modern-day Rwanda. Thanks for sharing, and enjoy the rest of your time in Rugabano!

teaching English in Rwanda

Elizabeth and friends commemorate her birthday with a photo

You can keep up with Elizabeth on her blog, Les Elephants and Other Adventures, which she updates from Rwanda. She happened to mention that she is currently working to improve the resources in her school’s library and computer lab; if you’d be willing to donate children’s books, old (but still functioning) computer parts like mice or keyboards, please contact her at elizabeth.stuhr@gmail.com. Thanks!

*Keep in mind that these views are property of Elizabeth Stuhr and do not necessarily reflect those of the Peace Corps

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  1. This is awesome and so interesting. I don’t envy her teaching with so few resources!

    I have a TON of old children’s books I’ve been holding onto and not knowing what to do with. I’ll get in touch with her!

  2. Fascinating insights. I thought I had few resources, but sheesh.

    • Cassandra

      That’s what I thought,too. No longer will I complain if I can’t print activities for the class to share!

  3. Christine

    I just love this post, you can tell the real love of teaching, learning and knowing who you are shinning through.

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