As part of my deal for going to Rwanda, I was supposed to teach some students at the National University of Rwanda at Butare about research methods. It was not exactly clear what I was supposed to do – like everything else. That was cool though – I was getting a trip to Africa and I would be the first in the family to go there.
Now, I have a love-hate relationship with teaching. I love the engagement, the pursuit, watching young minds come alive – preparing to struggle, challenge, overthrow and prosper. I hate the machine that education has become however: most of my colleagues lectured and did not interact much in the classroom, students want an A and most acquired them (the essence of my teaching method was Socratic with a healthy line of Dewey), most didn’t want to read and most couldn’t write – I’ll just stop there.
The situation had started to slowly kill me. Every now and then I would come across a jewel of a student: engaged but reflective, hardworking but carefree, troubled but helpful, young but old. These had become fewer and far between.
In response, I had started to pull back – moving to the dark side: research (or, was it the other way around?). Regardless, I felt it creep in: fewer written assignments (a pain to grade), fewer books assigned (a pain to pull out of them), fewer questions (more talking to as opposed to talking with for the students weren’t interested).
Being asked to teach in Rwanda was thus a mixed blessing. I figured I would give it a shot.
Once in the classroom, it was a different story. The classroom existed in what looked like a military bunker made of brick and wire fences. There was a basketball court in front of the Rector’s office (the American equivalent of the University President), a field for “experimentation,” dormitories and other classrooms – all surrounded by jungle and barbed wire.
The students ranged from ages 18 to 40. They had very different backgrounds: some had fought in the civil war (not a handbag in sight), some had been abroad the whole time and had just returned and some had been in Rwanda hiding. Some spoke English, most spoke French and all spoke Kinyarwandan. All the students were neatly dressed and were respectful to a fault. All had cell phones and grumbled when they were asked to turn them off. This was somewhat similar to the states until I realized that cell phones here were a life-line in the literal sense. How could you ask a student to stay off their cell in Rwanda when the next revolution could be coming over the airwaves? The immediacy simply trumped the courtesy. We settled on them applying a higher criteria for accepting a call: it had to be “important.” Over time, they got the point.
All the students were surprised to find out that their instructor was an African American. They had never seen one and thus whenever they had a chance, they would ask questions about my life and my take on America. This came later though. At first, they just sat there quizzically.
Socrates did not come to Rwanda with me nor did he already reside there for me to run across. The Rwandese were used to lecturing. They were used to being told what to do and how to do it. Unlike the deferent to authority machines discussed in the Western media, however, once the students were given a chance, prompted and made to feel comfortable, they were full of questions and challenges.
Interestingly, there was a certain degree of skepticism about statistics and numerical representation –the “you can say anything with numbers” variety. Walking by a chart plotting nose size against ethnic identity that I saw on a wall in a nearby library (provided by the Belgians but replicated elsewhere), I understood how they could come to be this way. Nevertheless, we pushed on.
What struck me most about the students was that the “children are the future” stuff we always hear in the states is a genuine reality in Rwanda. These kids literally are the future and much of the present. These kids are not going to be the farmers who made up the majority of society. They were going to be the lawyers, entrepeneurs, generals and Rectors who ran it. They know it and you can see it in their faces, which leads to a certain degree of snootiness. Now, it is not like interacting with kids from the uppercrust American institutions (Yale, Harvard, Stanford, etc.) but it is in the same ballpark; or, neighborhood of the ballpark.
These kids had to get it right and so did everyone around them. Some of this was interest driven but some of it was external. They were handpicked the way athletes had been in the former Soviet Union, given everything to become the very best that they could be so that they could later serve the state who would continue to allow them to be the very best. Kinda like “Be all that you Can be – or else.”
But, this was not necessarily good for education and knowledge building. Could you learn something which you thought was used to hold you back? Could you take it in but not be taken over? The students evaluated everything that came out of my mouth by some metric of state and nation-building. Will this help Rwanda? How? Can we extract something that is useful from this America? And, so it went for weeks.
The student’s intensity, the little state and nation-building exercise, the weight of their expectations were energizing. It was not like interacting with the kids back home at the University of Maryland (where I taught at the time) who were only excited when class was over, moving on to the next mediocre experience. These kids were hungry. It was not like interacting with the kids from Ivy League schools either, who now walked around Rwanda as consultants, humanitarian aid workers, bankers and cultural attaches with a combination of derision, awe and compassion on a stick. Rwanda was off. Rwanda was raw. The students followed suit. Some eye of the tiger like stuff.
But, if they were the tiger, then who was I: the meat, the zoo keeper, the visitor getting too close to the cage or was I just another animal in the cage daydreaming while someone slipped a needle under my fur to keep me calm and unpredatory? The students seem to have the same quizzical look directed at me as well, trying to figure me out. Who was I to them (cue the music)? Was I the oppressor in a new package? Was I some ally who recently found his way to their school in the jungle? Was I one of the thousands of individuals who came to Rwanda after the violence to pay pennance, soon to leave after I felt my soul had been cleansed? Or, would I return to keep putting up my strange words and equations on the blackboard, year after year? On opposite sides of the cage, we looked at each other, wondering who was on which side.