“My Oh My!”

“Just Connect.”
–E.M. Forester, Howard’s End

I have that quote posted on my bulletin board at school (yeah, I still have the old fashioned kind.) I’ve always believed in those two words, but now they may become my motto. My time traveling has been all about the connections I’ve made at home leading to connections abroad and then to connections I’ve made with strangers who want to share their love of home, of place, of belonging to a certain piece of land and a certain group of people at a certain time.

Years ago I took a course at the University of Southern Maine and learned that the word nostalgia does not mean that sentimental longing we all feel now and again for the good old days or the way things used to be. Nostalgia is deeper than that. The first recorded use of the word (at least that’s what my professor told me) was in the Odyssey. The root of the word, confirmed by the only friend I have who actually knows ancient Greek (and everything else)—Jennifer Clarke—told me it is from the Greek word nostos which means “return home” and algos, for “pain.” It is a literal ache, a sickness we feel in the pit of our belly to want to go home again. It is the way Odysseus and his crew felt after being gone 20 long years from Athens. It is the way I imagine sometimes my students and their families have felt. It is that deep, deep longing to be in the culture we understand, where the codes are clear and known. It is probably what made me cry this morning when the showerhead fell off the pipe I was standing under at my hotel. As I stood there watching a drip of water cascade (sort of) down a wall and into an Ethiopian drain, tears ran down my cheeks. I wanted to be home where I understand and everything is understood and mostly showerheads stay where they belong. (Funny side note: this same problem with a showerhead happened to me in Zambia, but I didn’t cry then. I was in my niece and nephew’s shower and was more worried they would think I broke their bathroom, which I DID NOT, JASON!)

Nostalgia is a piece of that deep love we all have for our homes. Despite the pain and conflict it sometimes brought, our home is our home. A part of respecting ourselves is respecting where we are from and how our home has shaped us. I have found people in every part of Africa I have been who want to know about my home and want to show me all the nooks and crannies of their own. Below are some of the people and places I’ve met during my month in Kenya and “my, oh my,” to quote my friend Abel, who is a fabulous Salsa dancer and can mimic the popular Kenyan phrase heard throughout the country spot on, it has been good to see it all.

These are photos from when I first arrived in Nairobi. At my friend Andrea’s Holiday Party this year, I met her friends Dave and Linda Berkey who referred me to a father-son tour guide duo who share a combined wisdom and love of Kenya’s natural and man made history. Tour guides in Kenya are put through a rigorous testing system and Joseph has his silver medal while Dennis already has his bronze. Together the two whisked me through the big city and we saw the National Park in Nairobi, the home of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen of Out of Africa fame, Kazuri, a business started by a British woman to give local women skill in jewelry and pottery making, and a giraffe sanctuary. If ever you come to Kenya, let me know because you will want these two to show you around. I only regret I couldn’t do a naturalist guided tour with them because every time a bird flew by or made a sound Joseph would whip around and tell me the genus, species and common name. He did the same with every piece of vegetation he saw as well.

The photos below are from early in my time in Bungoma, when Mama and Mzee took me to see the five-star hotel their son Senator Moses Wetang’ula, the Senate Minority Leader in Parliament, is building to encourage tourism in the area. Without the assistance of any machinery, the crew of 150 local skilled and unskilled workers is hauling and cutting rock among natural boulders to build at least 50 cottages where people will come to relax. The grounds will host a swimming pool and golf course along with dining facilities. There are also a few shots from some of the gatherings where I was staying with the Wetang’ula family.

Here are photos from Kisumu, a lovely town on the shores of Lake Victoria where I met Joshua and his kids. They just took me off for on a magical tour to see downtown Kisumu and Kit Mikayi, this mystical rock formation where spiritual folk pray, meditate and sing. It was Good Friday the day we visited, but I do not think that is why the place felt so holy. There was something in the rocks as ancient as time itself. While climbing through the labyrinth of rocks and caves, breathtaking views and vistas emerged. We would stumble upon pilgrims praying and voices of women singing which seem to come from the rocks itself.

Below are shots from my three day excursion to Kakamega. I had a brief meeting with Dorothy Selebwa, Project Director of the Kakamega Orphans Care Centre because Peter’s buddy and former RAaW member Mitch Newlin hooked me up with her. Mitch spent six months last year working at the orphanage and volunteered there twice when he was a student at Waynflete. Mitch was part of Empty Bowls, an Activity for Upper School students who helped raise money for the orphanage. Mitch is coming back to the orphanage in July and Dorothy couldn’t be happier. She says he is connected to the place. I also had a wonderful day with my friend Rosemary the librarian I wrote about in my last blog. She and some of her colleagues walked with me to the Crying Stone, a rock formation which looks like it’s crying (at least during the month of August). Oral tradition tells the story of a local chief who treated his wife poorly and the rocks cry for her. The next day I took a marvelous trip to the Kakamega Forest. I only wish I had gotten there early in the day to see the many species of birds that live there.

And finally, my last weekend with Abel Kachu, Justo, Diety and many other friends in Nairobi was the perfect way to end my time in Kenya. After a long month working in rural western Kenya it was just glorious having time to explore a bit of the big city and go dancing Saturday night at Abel’s local bar. Abel works for Senator Moses Wetang’ula and does important research. And my oh my, he is a fabulous salsa dancer.


New Tripoli, Pennsylvania 1935; Egypt, Pennsylvania 1971; Omaha, Nebraska 1982; Portland, Maine & Mukhweya, Kenya 2014

I spent many years of my childhood searching for the mythical land of Bixlersville. My father used to tell me and my brother and sisters about it all the time, and I roamed the back roads of Egypt, PA sure I would find it sooner or later. Bixlersville was a simple place where people were mostly hard working farmers who lived without modern devices. Dad would go on and on about life there, and even when he told me that my real mother—Sarah Bix—lived there, I didn’t catch that it was all a joke he was playing on me. I think I was about 15 when I finally figured out my dad was pulling my leg, but as it turns out the joke is on him. I have found Bixlersville; it is in Kenya.

I am living in a rural area of western Kenya. The nearest big town in Bungoma, but it is a hard to get there. It is almost 30 minutes away on roads that are rutted and difficult to manage. There are children in the village of Mukhweya who rarely, if ever, see town. I am told that Dominic, the 13 year old grandson of my hosts, goes to Bungoma maybe twice a year, and that is because he is lucky; his family owns a vehicle. Not a car, a vehicle. Frankly, I don’t know how any cars could survive these roads. There have been bad roads everywhere in Africa, but here the roads make me dizzy and my stomach churns as we dip and dive into ruts. But I am grateful to have the luxury of transportation and John, the able and kind driver, and I have been become fast friends. He has driven me where I needed to be and waited for me when I had to find a chocolate or Internet connection. He works for my hosts, Mzee Dominic Wetang’ula and his wife, Faustina who have embraced me into their home. My African “mother,” (sorry mom, you know you’re #1) who everyone calls Mama, says I am her last born, and she has named me Susana Naliaka. I arrived at her doorstep at the time of weeding–so I am Naliaka, the Swahili word for the season of weeding. She has been teaching me Swahili and I’ve made more progress in that language than any other. I even have a little “schtick” that brings down the house–and it’s not my accent. I think everyone is just amazed that a white person can say something somewhat convincingly that indicates I have some connection to their culture no matter how tenuous. It’s been helpful to have some language because in the work I have been doing with Mzee (the title given to those few older men who have earned respect), it’s good to have an opener. In the few short weeks I’ve been here, I’m amazed at all Mzee is doing to get a few steps closer to building the first ever library in all of Bungoma County. Mzee is coordinator of the library committee and just about every other committee in the community. He is sought out by scores of folks for his advice and opinion. Everyday there is a line up of people at the door seeking his assistance. Two of Mzee and Mama’s grandchildren, Nora and Dominic, have been at home because it is school vacation. They work tirelessly doing the farm chores, cleaning, cooking and generally helping with anything their grandparents ask. Sometimes their mother Stella, a hard working woman who has a stall at a local market and reminds me of my Aunt Nancy, stays for a day or two. The whole time she is here, she is in motion. Here, everyone works and everyone relaxes. It is the extreme of both edges in Bungoma.

Mukhweya feels caught in a time warp between the mid-thirties, the early seventies or eighties and the present. There are moments when I feel like my mother and I have switched places. Mom grew up in the village of New Tripoli, PA, at a time when electricity was still new. There is electric here in Mukhweya, but it operates on its own whims, particularly during the rainy season. No one seems to know why, but when it rains, even if there isn’t thunder or lightening, the electricity will disappear for one minute or five or for the rest of the evening. No one blinks an eye. The kerosene lamps are always at the ready just like my mom told me they were in her home. And just like in New Tripoli and the Egypt of my youth, family is right next door. My mom’s extended family and my own cousins all lived within walking distance, and we saw each other on a daily basis. That is how it is here. Everyone in this compound and the one across the street are related…in fact, it seems like most of the town is related to each other. I am living on a compound with three main houses all made of mud and plaster, several smaller houses, and lots of buildings for animals. The dog Jerry (of Tom & Jerry) just had seven puppies under the chicken coop—similar to the way my cat Snowflake insisted on giving birth to her kittens on top of the coal in the cellar bin. Here in the “suburbs” of Bungoma is that deeply rural community where people are connected to the land and each other. I watch the young man who does all the chores bring a headless chicken into the kitchen, and I know about two hours later I will be eating the rest of it. I visit with the widow who has HIV and see how her family around her is taking care of her children. I watch the water porter go back and forth on his bicycle lugging big yellow jugs between the water tower and people’s homes all day long. I see the little girls here bring their coins to church wrapped in a hankie, the same way I did in Egypt. In the evening I sit with my “family” and watch this Spanish show, The Reys, a poorly acted soap opera that seems to have folks here riveted, and I remember sitting with my brother Roy and his wife Cece watching an Emmy Award winning show, Hill Street Blues, after a long day at my first teaching job in Omaha, Nebraska when I was just beginning to learn how to use computers in the classroom. Back in Mukhweya, I glance up from my breakfast and look at the children in the compound effortlessly using my Ipad. Bungoma is at the intersection of modernity and the past, and it is desperately trying to bring itself front and center.

Ostensibly, I am here to assist the library committee establish its first library in this community, but that is a job much bigger than I am. Lindsay Kaplan, a teacher at Waynflete connected me with her sister Eva Kaplan who is the Director and Co-Founder of Maria’s Libraries, a group committed to helping spread the growth of libraries in Kenya. In Bungoma the committee has a vision of a library that serves as a community center and helps promote a reading culture. Many people here have never been to a library, and one member of the committee succinctly stated the vision of the library this way, “In a nutshell this library will be a transformational center for the community in terms of development and will provide a hub of social exposure.” I will not be here to watch as this library takes off, but Maria’s Libraries will be offering advice and has already donated a bicycle so that the library can begin a mobile library until the more permanent library they plan to open in a building donated to the cause is ready to go. Eventually, however, the library hopes to construct their own space. Eva has helped connect the committee to Books for Africa so that a container of books can be shipped from NYC all the way to the door of the new library. Maria’s Libraries sponsors programs for libraries in western Kenya, and I had the opportunity to attend part of a training given for librarians starting a literacy and cultural program called Mama Mtoto. The idea behind this mother and child program is to help instill a love of reading in mothers and their preschool children. The mothers tell stories of their own childhood or culture, and eventually one of the stories becomes a book that is produced in both hard copy and digitized form and shared in the vernacular with libraries in other sites. The very week after the training, Rosemary Imbayi, head teacher at Sigalagala Primary School, was already implementing the program. Rosemary voluntarily began the library at her school and even though school was on vacation, she was in school working with mothers, their preschool children and about 40 K-8 children who came to school to keep reading during vacation. Meeting Rosemary was one of the highlights of my time in Kenya. She is a marvelous human being and in addition to all she does at her school, she is the Commissioner of Girl Scouts in her region and a tireless proponent for the children in her community. You can learn more about folks like Rosemary and the work of Maria’s Libraries at : mariaslibraries.org.

The big surprise of my stay in Kenya was the computer workshop I delivered to a group of almost 30 primary school teachers. That’s right, I was in charge of designing and presenting a training for folks who have little or no experience on the computer. I can just hear the GALES of laughter from my colleagues at Waynflete since despite dutifully attending computer camp for years at the end of school, and trying to stay current with Google Docs, Schoology and whatever else is new on the horizon of technology, my own computer skills leave much to be desired. Fortunately, I had the able assistance of Daniel, the Computer teacher at Luuya Girls’ School who fielded all the really hard questions, and the support of my friend Esther, Head of the School. I did the easy stuff like explain what the on button looks like and how the monitor is the eyes of the computer. Thanks to my buddy Sara Staples and the generous teachers at Portland Adult Education, there were big plans to sign teachers in Kenya up for gmail and give them pen pals with the teachers at PAE, but just as we were about to begin the internet portion of the workshop and Skype with Sara, it started to rain. You remember what I told you about rain and electricity? Well, it didn’t just rain, it poured. There was a deluge and the cows roaming around the schoolyard actually came onto the porch and almost entered the workshop with us. Then the electricity went out and despite having a back up plan of a modem to get the internet (I mean, I am a computer teacher after all. I know about needing a back up plan with technology), the modem didn’t work either. Not to be daunted, we gave out the email addresses of teachers from PAE anyway, and Daniel has promised to meet with any teachers who can come back and want help creating an account.

It wasn’t all work in Kenya, but I have decided to write a much shorter, more pictorial version of the fun I had in Kenya in an upcoming post. Kenya has been a time of working, learning and remembering. It wasn’t always easy, but it has taught me about the need for time to reflect and given me gratitude for all I have in both my personal and professional life.


Only In Burundi

I have been introduced to a new word that may take me a lifetime to understand. The word is ubuntu. It is less a word and more a philosophy, a way of living, but my Burundian/Rwandese, maybe all my African friends, will know what I am talking about. It is one of those words that is hard to translate; the kind of word that makes faces soften, hands draw up to the heart and eyes stare off in wonder when you say it aloud. Literally translated it means “human-ness.” Its core belief is that humans cannot exist in isolation because society is not made up of individuals, but people who “belong to each other,” who share in each other’s humanness, who say, “we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am” (Eze, Michael Onyebuchi. 2010. Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa. Palgrave Macmillan). Let me introduce you to a few faces of the people I have met who possess ubuntu.

Photo of founders of Burundi American International Academy, Freddy and Esther Kaniki

Freddy Kaniki and his wife Esther

This is Freddy Kaniki and his wife Esther. He is part of the reason I have made it to Burundi. Almost two years ago, Norbert Runyambo, the father of two of my students and patron saint of my trip to Rwanda as well as almost everyone who knows him there, introduced me to Freddy who is building the Burundi American International Academy in Bujumbura. The school is perfectly sandwiched between the shores of Lake Tanganyika (a lake so beautiful I think I could spend the rest of my life just staring at it) with views of it out one side of the building and the mountains of Burundi on the other side. Freddy knows that it is in the classroom where the seeds of the future are planted. While I was there, I helped edit a few brochures with my new friend Carine who is helping Freddy fill the school with both local and international children. Carine invited me to her son Johan’s fifth birthday party where I met her friend Alice who went to college in the U.S. (in Pennsylvania in fact!) but who felt the pull of her beautiful Burundi and could not resist, and so she came back to work in her native country. In the photo, Alice is on left and Carine on the right. I think you can figure out which one is the five year old. Check out BAIA on line at: http://www.baiacademy.org.

Nelson Mandela has said that one of ubuntu’s basic tenets is related in a story of olden times. He tells of how travelers entering unknown villages were treated. They did not need to ask for food or water; the people of the village would supply them with what they needed. I have been that traveler invited into the homes, the cabs, the restaurants, the schools, the markets and everywhere I went in lovely Bujumbura. Everywhere, I got what I needed and so much more. I was lucky enough to live with the best hosts in all of Burundi and meet people like my two friends Dominick and Judicate.

Freddy had asked Carmen Nibigira, Burundi’s Director General of Tourism, to host my stay, but I was warmly welcomed not just by her but by her whole family: the beautiful Elsa, a budding Interior Designer like my own daughter Amelia, Carmen’s sons Dominik and Merick who were so busy studying for their exams we only had limited time to perfect our card games, Emmanuel and Fulgence, the two men who keep the home humming and make the most delicious food (especially pancakes!), and my new, dear friend, Domitille, a former Ambassador who is a VIP whether she admits it or not. She currently serves as an Advisor to the Ministry of Justice on issues of Gender, Human Rights and Legal Negotiations, but you would never know she has such a high position. She is humble and tries to mask her importance, but once you figure it out, you know she is The Boss. In fact, I think Springsteen needs to step down and let Domitille take over. I was grateful that the accommodations at Domitille’s house allowed me to meet Judicate Johnson, my Tanzanian neighbor. At just 24, he is both an entrepreneur and an author ready to publish a book. And then there is the lovely and wonderful Dominick, my taxi driver, who faithfully picked me up whenever I wanted to be driven around the beautiful city and endured my painful French.

Indeed, ubuntu is here in the people of Burundi. They do not ignore their past or their present. Both are very real for them. It is evident when Domitille pinches my leg after an important person, who drives like he actually does own the road, picks us up after our car dies hours from home. We are stopped and I point at a structure, innocently asking what it is. The Pinch. I shut up. (That’s one universal gesture that has meaning in every language.) I later learn I was pointing at the sight where a class of secondary school students was asked to separate into Hutus on one side and Tutsis on the other. The students refused. Their school was burned down with them in it. Domitille later tells me you don’t ask such questions when a favor is being extended.

But that Burundi is the same place where Lake Tanganyika’s pristine waters calls out to you as you enjoy lunch by its banks. It is where Freddy Kaniki is building BAIA because he believes education is the way to rebuild the country he loves despite losing his father and brothers during its long civil war from 1993-2005. It is where the Godfather of music in Burundi Buddy (pronounced Boo-day) and singer, American born/current Nairobi resident, Denise Gordon performed on a recent Friday night at the Roca Golf Hotel and then came out with a bunch of us who continued dancing until the wee hours of the morning at Geny’s Beach.

It is a place where the people who have stayed are passionate about rebuilding and promoting it to the world. It is where Carmen Nibigira, my host, is the Director General of Tourism and is proud of her “Beautiful Burundi.” She knows she lives in a place people need to see. I was honored to volunteer in her office and help edit the website because it gave me the opportunity to meet other Burundians who feel the same way she does. Check out the website at: http://www.burundi-tourism.com/

On my second day in Burundi I sent an email to E’nkul Kanakan, former Waynflete board member and father of five, three of whom are Waynflete alumni (Axel Kanakan, 2008, Cynthia Kanakan, 2010 and Kevin Kanakan, 2013). I asked him where the family lived when they were there. “Avenue Muyenga,” he writes back. My heart stops. I am living at 44 Avenue Muyenga. I am on the same street….just a few blocks away from their family home.

Cynthia and Axel Kanakan standing in front of their home in Bujumbura.....on the exact street where I was living during my brief two week stay.

Cynthia and Axel Kanakan standing in front of their home in Bujumbura…..on the exact street where I was living during my brief two week stay.

So here it comes full circle. They left for good reasons in 1996 and I visited for good reasons. It is all connected. I am here because you are there.

I am ending this post with a photo montage of some of my favorite Burundi photos. I want to remember this place forever.


There is Zumba in Burundi!

Wish I had a picture to prove it, but for right now, know that Zumba is alive and very well in Bujumbura, Burundi. I’m not saying anything else right now, but just wait until I tell you the rest of my story from Burundi. This place is the sleeper of the trip, the stocking at Christmas, the bubble gum in the middle of the lollipop, the prize in the Cracker Jacks.

P.S. I am grateful to all my buddies from my class in Portland, and especially my instructor Emma Holder, because without the years of practice I’ve had, there is no way I could have kept up with the intense workout this very fit Ugandan instructor gives three mornings a week to a room full of people who care about exercise in Beautiful Burundi’s version of Central Park.


There Is More Than One Story

It is all the senses on fire. There is laughter so buoyant it communicates through its timbre. There is a green robe of color draping Rwanda, the mille collines, the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” In Kigali there is great wealth on roads so deeply rutted a small child could be lost in them. Not far away I see hills upon hills of rural beauty. There are bird sounds I have never heard, and at Lake Kivu out of the corner of my eye, I catch a color of wings the likes of which I have never seen before. There is the whisk of a handmade broom brushing off the grit of the previous day from already nearly immaculate pavement, and the sounds of children erupting into song as they arrive at school. There is the strong smell of humanity not trying to perfume itself. There is a gentleness to the breeze, even in Kigali where clothes are washed by hand and hung on the line in mansions of sparkling tile in a modern city alive with its own energy. Sitting at a window, I see children being watched by many eyes on the side of the road as my bus careens around “S” curves. This juxtaposition of the cosmopolitan with the rural is part of the new Rwanda.

Roadside rural view

Roadside rural view

New construction homes in Kigali

New construction homes in Kigali

“This is Africa,” Antoinette tells me. She is the aunt of two former students, and she has taken it upon herself to show me her Africa. Night after night I am graciously welcomed into family members homes of former students Paul Runyambo (2013) and his sister Letitica (2016). Their father Dr. Norbert Runyambo has arranged this part of my trip, and the respect every single person I meet has for him opens doors for me. Dr. Runyambo’s name carries great meaning here and everyone tells me if I am a friend of Runyambo, I am welcome in their home. I am in Africa; I am family.And that’s not even everybody.

I am also able to make my own friends as well. I am drawn to young people, the age of my own children, the survivors of the genocide. No one shies away from the history. They want to tell their stories. On the first of my three days in Kibuye, a lovely town on the shores of Lake Kivu, I meet Emmanuel, and we strike up a conversation on the road. He is finishing up his degree in Agriculture, specializing in soil erosion and land management. He spends an entire day with me describing the difficulties of getting work despite his training. He talks of maybe earning a master’s degree or perhaps starting a small farming operation, but getting started without capital is difficult. He walks me to a church, now a memorial to the genocide.IMG_0752

From far away I hadn’t even seen the skulls, but Emmanuel specifically pointed them out to me. I had been to the Kigali Memorial Centre, a museum that poignantly explains the genocide with text, media and artifacts. It is gripping. And this church is equally, maybe even more painful in its starkness. Later, Emmanuel takes me to a friend of his who teaches at College Sainte Marie, an all girls Catholic Secondary School and afterwards the three of us relax at a restaurant. Also in Kibuye, I meet Habiman, my tour guide on the lake. He tells me he lives on an island of only 10 people but that during the genocide the soldiers found them there. It is through Waynflete that I meet other wonderful young people. Shingiro is introduced to me by Holly Kiehl, a woman I met just this fall in my room at school. Holly is a college admissions representative from Bennington College and college classmate of former EAL student Terekah Najuwan (2003). She stumbled upon my blog, contacted me and gave me names of contacts she had in Rwanda. I am able to meet up with one of them, Shingiro, last Saturday. Shingiro invites me to his school, Rwamagana Lutheran School, an expeditionary learning school totally focused on sustainability. (I may end up writing another entry about more of the schools I am visiting because this one needs to known! Get ready Green Team: I have IDEAS!) Shingiro shares the story of his family and how it took over 10 years before he found his sister, the only other member of his family who survived. Shingiro is now a talented English teacher who is adamant about establishing a reading culture in his classroom. He is a learned man of English and also recommends many new African novels for me to read. Earlier in the week I meet up with Yves and Elise in Kigali because my colleague Michele Lettiere introduced me to Bates College French Professor, Alexandre Dauge-Roth who helped establish Friends of Tubeho in 2006. This organization “is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization that is committed to providing access to education for more than 300 orphans of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 who live together in small houses provided by the association Tubeho in Kigali” (http://friendsoftubeho.org/). Check it out because this organization makes a difference to many young adults and is providing a service that is still needed in Rwanda today. Alex introduces me via email to Elise and Yves. Elise rents space to sell African art work and has just written a book, Le Livre d’Elise soon to be published. It begins with a proclamation that there has been enough silence in her life. It is time to tell her story. Yves is a brilliant young philosopher/Information Technology student with just one more term left before he graduates. We spend hours in lengthy conversation of penetrating depth and thoughtfulness, and he takes me to a museum in Kigali situated in the home of the first German colonist in Rwanda. Both Elise and Yves speak openly about their lives now and where they were then. They tell me how Alex has brought Bates students to Rwanda to learn first hand about the genocide. Alex is clearly an important person in their lives who has helped them move forward.

It is Shingiro who gives me the line, “There is more than one story.” He explains how everyone has a different tale in the country’s complicated narrative which is told by those who were here and those who returned afterwards. It is now a country where victims and perpetrators live and work side by side. A country where Gacaca Courts, a traditional means of delivering justice, have left a mixed legacy. Many Rwandans are practical. They explain the Gacaca Courts were a cost effective way to try the many who were taxing an already ravaged country. In 1994 many of the countries’ judges and lawyers had been killed or fled. It was estimated that to try so many at time when the country’s infrastructure both in the judicial system and in the nation as a whole was destroyed would take over 200 years. The idea behind the Gacaca Courts was that punishment would be swift and provide a way for perpetrators to learn how their actions effected so many and provide an opportunity for change. This concept was corroborated by my new friend Celestine, a law student at the University of Rwanda who says the purpose of law is to teach not punish. The implementation of this traditional justice system makes many proud of the way community based cultural practices began the process of healing the wounds of the nation. Others feel these “petty courts” minimized the horrendous actions of so many. They explain Gacaca Courts were intended to be a way to resolve local issues like land squabbles, marital problems, thievery and vandalism, not genocide (“Rwanda’s Gacaca courts: A Mixed Legacy” New Internationalist, http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2012/06/15/gacaca-courts-legacy/). Many survivors feel the courts were an expedient way to speed up the process of reconciliation and reestablish society but that justice was not served. I have met people on both sides of this issue, and as the 20th anniversary of the genocide looms, it is clear much has been done to move forward and many are still in pain.

It seems insensitive to end with the story of the bats, but to me it is a metaphor that encapsulates the side-by-sideness of this country–the great beauty, the great movements forward, the feelings of optimism and hope right next to great horror. For me that is the story of the bats. Habiman took me to beautiful Napoleon island which is shaped like Napoleon’s trademark bicorne hat. We dock the boat and begin climbing up and up, and soon we are surrounded by the thousands and thousands and thousands of bats who fly to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to eat at night and come back to Rwanda during the day to sleep. I think of my children, now so far away both in geography and in the way I call out to their childhood selves. I am being swarmed, but I find calm and a way to move forward. I remember reading Stella Luna to Maggie, Amelia and Peter, and I can see anew the beauty in an animal that still scares me.

NOTE: I tried and tried and tried to insert the photos of the bats into this post, but despite the leaps and bounds I am making in my understanding of technology, I cannot get them to load. If we are friends on Facebook, the album from my trip to Lake Kivu have the visual of what I am trying to describe in words. Friend me if you want to see them!!


“You Will Become More of Who You Are”

Everyone told me this trip would change me, but my friend Arline Saturdayborn, the mother of one of Waynflete’s finest, put a different spin on the saying. “You will become more of who you are, Sue Stein.” That’s what she said. I think I know who I am now. I am a teacher.

While in Zambia I visited several schools. I finally saw what my students have been talking about.

At each school I have had glimpses into what students have been telling me for years. Being here is giving me a slightly better understanding of the jump students and their families have made going to school in the United States.

There are government and private schools in Africa just as in the US. Students in Zambia (and it appears similar in Rwanda) go to Primary School for what would be our grades 1-6. At the end of Primary School, there is a test before beginning Secondary School. (In Zambia education is compulsory only until grade 7.) Secondary School is divided in two parts and after Secondary Three students again take another test which sets them on the course for their university or college selection. Many students end their formal education then, however, according to an article in the New African (May 2013) there is a “booming demographic” of young people in sub-Sahara Africa, and while now only roughly 30 % of students are completing their secondary education, that is up from 9% in 1975 (“Investing in Africa: A Future of Boundless Opportunity,” 13). At the end of Secondary Six students who “win” and achieve good scores are chosen by the government and earn a scholarship to the Government University. In Butare, I was given a tour of the National University of Rwanda by Paul and Letitia Runyambo’s cousin Celestine who is studying to be a lawyer.

Photo of Celestine Ruhanamilindi Mutabazi and I taking a break from our tour of Butare, Rwanda.

Célestin Ruhanamilindi Mutabazi is a student of law at the National University of Rwanda. Here we are getting out of the rain and discussing his studies.

Celestine is full of life and energy and explained to me how it is the Constitution and the upholding of it that makes his country different from others. He proudly tells me there is no capital punishment in Rwanda because the law is meant “to instruct, not punish.” Quite an approach from a country with such a painful recent history.

I have been told classrooms have 40-60 students per room, and students have many subjects to study like: Commerce, Agriculture, Business, English, Geography, Design. I have paged through some notebooks of students and seen meticulous renderings of the teacher’s exact words copied with precision. There are artistic renderings to accompany the notes. It is detailed and rote. Students are expected to memorize exactly what the teacher says. When tests are given to secondary students, they are expected to recall minutia derived from a wealth of possibilities. It is not like the SAT or ACT. It is a test directly derived from facts and information learned over a student’s lifetime.

Being at Kablunga Girls’ School gave me the opportunity to see a small slice of how that information is delivered. I was surprised they even let me in, but I just walked into the school, found the headmaster’s office and asked if she would consider letting me observe a classroom. She was a bit leery at first, but I kept talking and suddenly this big smile came over her and she said, “Fine.” My heart leapt up (to change the verb tense from William Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up”). I was going to be in a classroom! I was led to the teacher’s room where I met Nancy Moono and observed a team of professionals grading stacks of papers. I had 20 minutes to prepare a lesson on illiteracy in Kenya. I was interrupted in my rapid preparation by a teacher who explained that government schools suffer because private schools take all the best students, but later Nancy said she did not necessarily agree. I walked into a classroom of about 55 girls and began like any totally unprepared teacher from America would, “So, who knows where Maine is?” We went from there. At the end of class (thankfully, Nancy let us move rather quickly through the dense passage on illiteracy) I offered students candy or a pencil. Down to a person, they all wanted the pencils. I had to come back and give them more because I hadn’t brought enough. I walked “home” on a cloud. I had been in a classroom again. I felt alive.

I felt the same way yesterday taking a walk in Kibuye, Rwanda when I met some children on the road. We began talking (me practicing my Kinyarwanda, them their English), and they were excited when I told them I was a teacher. I asked if I could take their photo and they agreed. I have a beautiful picture of them holding a Waynflete pen, but after I took the photo an adult (and every adult here looks out for the children) said, “No photo” so I do not want to publish it. But oh the delight from a pen.

Let me end this entry with a poem Arline’s daughter Caitie Whelan (class of ’02?), sent me on the eve of my departure. It captures how it feels to know who I am again.

by Rilke

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
where everything shines as it disappears.
The artist, when sketching, loves nothing
so much
as the curve of the body as it turns away.

What locks itself in sameness has
Is it safer to be gray or numb?
What turns hard becomes rigid
and is easily shattered.

Pour yourself out like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge that you are
finishing often at the start, and, with
ending, begins.

Every happiness is the child of separation
it did not think it could survive. And
Daphne, becoming laurel,
dares you to become the wind.


Zambia: The Real Africa

I got on the other side.
Photo of two paths and maize on either side
I actually made it down several of those paths I kept seeing from the windows of the vehicles where I had been sitting and staring longingly at the beauty of Zambia. The first dirt pocked road I made it down ended at Yvonne’s house in Matero, a section of Lusaka.
Yvonne stirring n'shima with Sharon and Meeshach.
That’s Yvonne there stirring the pot of nshima with her homegrown maize in the background. Nshima is a staple here in Zambia, and I’ve even had a turn making it over the coals of the brazier. My muscles were given a workout trying to prevent lumps from forming as I whipped that cooking stick around the pot. In the photo you can also see Sharon and Meshach who are about to play Uno with Yvonne’s younger son John and me when we walk in that door. The reason I managed to spend the night at Yvonne’s house and have her serve as my escort for a trip to Zambia’s Copperbelt region is because Yvonne’s brother Chungu Mwila is a student at the University of Southern Maine. My dear friend and colleague Alain Nkulu introduced me to him as well as Chungu’s sister and brother-in-law Sally and Maxwell Chikuta one hot day last summer, and because of those simple introductions made in Alain’s home in Portland, Maine, I have been invited into the lives of complete strangers. Alain, Chungu, Maxwell and Sally’s generosity reminds me of the epitaph I saw just a few weeks ago when I was wandering around a cemetery in Victoria Falls with the rest of my family. We happened upon John Neil Wilson’s grave and the words engraved on his tombstone moved us.

“Your name, your deeds will be as legible on the hearts you left behind as the stars on the brow of evening.”
That is my new desire–to live that kind of life.

We leave the next morning, Yvonne and I. We cram into the minibus along with workers from this area of town headed into downtown Lusaka. We buy a ticket for one of the big buses going north to the Copperbelt to visit Chungu and Yvonne’s aunt and uncle. And hours later when we land, we are somewhere near Kalulushi in the bush.

It is like arriving in a novel. It is quiet: complete and utter peace. Water is drawn from the well. Lemons and mangoes grow on the tress. The two live without money. Chungu’s Uncle Charles is using the limbs from trees to build a drying rack for the dishes. The “rope” he uses comes from the fiber of the bark of a tree. Chungu’s Aunt Bana Mpundu is cooking in one hut with the vegetables she has grown and the chickens she has raised. Charles worked for the mines and was put on “early retirement” 20 years ago while still a young man in his fifties (my age!). He was given enough money to buy the house and the family existed on just the little that remained for over a year. That is the last time there has been a steady course of income. Occasionally they sell fruit from their trees or crops from their garden on the roadside, but mostly they live there “by God’s grace.” Both of them glow, literally radiate an inner light that appears borne of contentment. The kind the rest of us keep chasing, but here it is. Just quietly sustaining itself without any gadgets or distractions. I am completely and utterly happy in this place of dignity and self-sufficiency. This is the Outdoor Experience I have been wanting. And the next morning, I do not want to leave, but there is a mother who needs to see her daughter.

Yvonne and I head to Chingola. I do not realize it, but we are on the bus with a pal. Yes, I have become one of those people my students have told me about. I am driving in a crowded minibus with a chicken. My chicken. Yvonne holding the chickenLike all the children on all the public transportation we’ve taken, the chicken is well behaved, but I don’t know if this will save him from what I am concerned will be his fate when we arrive.

We arrive in Chingola and I go down another deeply rutted dirt road. Yvonne is a mother happy to see her daughter Loveness again. We spend the afternoon at Chikola Secondary school with Loveness and her friend Matilda, and I watch very talented teenagers sing in the chorus, dance and play drums in the culture club and recite poetry in the drama club. I am back in a familiar venue–the company of adolescents. The evening is spent back at the house with (another) Sharon and her son, more nshima and dancing.

Later in the week, I am invited to Mtendere, another section of Lusaka, to visit at the home of Naomi, a life long resident of Lusaka who works for my niece. She and I have spent time talking during the day as she makes the house sparkle, and I am honored by her openness.IMG_0420 Naomi’s family welcomes me and I am struck by how easily everyone speaks to me and tells me about how even with a Secondary School diploma it is difficult for a young person to obtain a job and stay employed. We sip coke and I listen to the stories very different from the ones of the students I work with in Portland, Maine. Yet, like many young adults, there is hope and optimism for change.

Everywhere I have gone I have been greeted by friendly, giving people willing to talk and tell me their stories. I am told Zambia’s country slogan is, “The Real Africa,” and I have seen a genuineness here. There is no pretense. Life is lived in the here and now.

Even for chickens.
Photo of plucked chicken and feet in a bowl