June 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The first book I read after coming to Rwanda was 1984 by George Orwell. It’s a book I’ve read many times before. Reading it this most recent time my new environment colored my perception of and reaction to the book.
The industrial, bureaucratic London which is the book’s setting couldn’t be more different from the rural, village & clan based society in which I found myself. The centrally-planned, repressive economic policies portrayed in the book also bore little resemblance to the flexible and ad hoc economic activity I saw around me: small unions of bike taxis, subsistence farmers brining vegetables to market and informal arrangements with domestic workers. But, there was one element of 1984’s world that I could relate to: Newspeak.
Newspeak is a language (or dialect?) Orwell created to show how a totalitarian regime’s reach could expand to encompass even how we speak and, therefore, how we think. The purpose of Newspeak is to limit language in order to decrease thoughtcrime, rebellious or incorrect though. In Newspeak there are only two adjectives: good and ungood. There is not even good and bad, just good and ungood. The wide range of positive and negative adjectives which exist in English: felicitous, serendipitous, awesome, terrible, execrable, etc. are done away with. For a stronger emotion than “good” there exist only “plusgood” or “doubleplusgood.” That’s it.
Kinyarwanda is very similar. A small set of basic adjectives is used to express all manner of thoughts and feelings.
Take the example of a bed. In English, I can compliment a blanket by saying it’s pretty, attractive, eye-catching, and so on. I can comment on a comfortable, fluffy pillow, a sturdy, well-made bed frame and a cushioned, luxurious mattress. In Kinyarwanda, all I can say is that all those things are good. I can also describe my reaction to the bed in English: delighted, pleased, gratified, jubilant, enthusiastic, satisfied and so on. In Kinyarwanda I can only be happy. This same semantic simplicity applies to negative adjectives as well.
Obviously, Kinyarwanda’s range of adjectives is not artificially limited by some outside body. The language just happened to develop this way. As I have written, it also developed great levels of specificity and detail in other areas.
But, I do think it’s interesting that the purpose of Newspeak’s sparse vocabulary was to limit thought. How are native Kinyarwanda’s speakers’ thought processes shaped by their language?
I’m not sure how much I buy into the idea that our thoughts are limited by the vocabulary available to us. I don’t believe that because Rwandans have fewer adjectives in their language than English speakers do their range of feelings and nuance of emotional experience are also less.
However, I would imagine that the act of learning each of the different words for happy, for example, that we have in English requires an English speaker to think through, however, briefly, the nuances of these different words. Maybe this makes their thinking about their own and others’ emotions clearer and more explicit. Maybe they can be more aware and self-reflective about the range of emotional experience available to human beings.
Because the ability to use very precise language exists, a correspondingly elaborate thought process must take place to choose between the different options available. So, maybe English speakers’ brains are more highly trained, in better shape so to speak, in this area than those of speakers of languages whose vocabulary is smaller?
I think this aspect of Kinyarwanda is interesting. It’s a very economical way to use language which reduces ideas to their most basic or essential form. Think how overwhelming it must be for native speakers of Kinyarwanda to be confronted by English’s array of adjectives! They wouldn’t know whether to call our vocabulary huge, large, gigantic, enormous, Brobdingnagian, expansive, massive or just plain old “big.”
The variety in and among the world’s languages is fascinating, isn’t it? Or, as I might say in Kinyarwanda, it’s good.
June 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
I don’t think it’s bragging to say I’m a good teacher. This year is my first of full-time teaching so, obviously, I have a lot to learn but I think I do a good job.
One reason that I think I’m successful (in the Rwandan context, especially) is that I have created a good rapport with my students. When I teach I try to encourage a comfortable, light-hearted atmosphere where students can do silly things and take risks in doing different activities in order to learn. They also feel comfortable to ask questions and tell me if they don’t understand (a big deal for students here!) I do this by being a little silly myself and showing students that I can laugh at myself when I do things like accidentally writing the answers on the board along with the questions for a quiz.
Even with this upbeat, collaborative tone I also maintain discipline and order in the class. My students now all know how to say “Sit down, now.” “No, go sit in your own seat,” “Go wait for me outside” and “Stop talking.” They also understand “Do I look happy right now?” and “You’re being disrespectful.” They actually chide each other in English now saying, “Go sit, go sit” or “Go outside!” when they think another student is getting out of line. (I also confirmed this week that a teacher slamming a textbook onto a table is a universally understood sign of displeasure.)
But, and this is important, I maintain discipline without shaming students, intimidating them, disrespecting them or, certainly, hitting them.
My students hit each other often (following the examples set by their other teachers) and I try to stop it. I tell them repeatedly, “Beating is bad.” They haven’t learned how to use personal pronouns yet so when they tattle on each other they do it in an amusingly mixed-up way saying, “Teacher, I beat you!” while looking aggrieved and pointing at the offender. As much as they may hit each other, they know that I would never ever hit them and they know that “gukubita ni bibi,” “beating is bad.”
Yesterday, though, another teacher came into my classroom and disrupted my violence-free ethos.
She was escorting a student who had ditched class into my room. She took the opportunity to scold my other students, too, focusing on one girl in particular.
She approached the student, a quiet, smart girl who has never caused any trouble in my class — and grabbed her ear, twisting it sharply. The girl pulled away so the teacher, a large, deep-voiced, intimidating woman, grabbed the top of her head in her hand, like an NBA player palming a basketball, and forced the girl to look at her. “Don’t look away,” she said, “look here.” She continued scolding her. After a minute or so of yelling, the teacher left. As soon as she walked out the door the girl laid her head on the desk and cried.
With only two minutes left in the period I tried to comfort the girl and refocus the shaken students who had been spectators. I told them I didn’t agree with what had happened and apologized to the girl. Meanwhile the students said “sorry sorry” to me, too. They were sorry I had had to watch the ugly scene.
Really, what happened is not very noteworthy because similar scenes occur often in other classes. It’s just that up until then my classes had been a bubble where the coercive force common in the school did not enter. Now that has changed. A student was made to feel ashamed and disrespected in my classroom.
I know my class understands that I don’t support what happened. They know that I’ll never do something like that again but I feel bad that I wasn’t able to stop it from happening in my class, while I was there. I feel bad that the experience of being hit, pushed around and beaten are familiar for my students. I feel bad that teachers here sometimes use their position of authority to harm rather than to help. I just feel so bad for my poor student. Such is life here. Violence is too often a way of life here.
June 11, 2013 § 3 Comments
I advocated for a catch-and-release method of getting him out of my room. My neighbor opted for a kill and kick the corpse out the door method instead. At least I was able to sleep last night.
June 7, 2013 § 2 Comments
I should say, before anything else, that Rwanda is developing quickly and has made tremendous progress since the country was devastated by the 1994 genocide. There is so much good that can be said about the country and how hard its citizens are working towards development. It is, nonetheless, among the poorest countries in the world. Rwanda ranks 159 out of 181 countries by GDP.
Even though I’m insulated from the real day-to-day realities of poverty because I have a stipend that allows me to live comfortably, all of the nice things I brought with me from America as well as care packages and gifts from people back home I still have had my eyes opened by observing the daily life here. I also recently came across some writing that reminded me of the magnitude and gravity of the problems which the continent of Africa faces.
So, let me share with you this quote. It comes from the book The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith. This 700-page opus follows the ups and downs of nearly every African country since independence. In it, he chronicles the poverty, corruption, tyranny and violence which have plagued this continent and continue to do so today.
Fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa’s prospects are bleaker than every before … Its average per capital national income is one-third lower than the world’s next poorest region, South Asia. Most African countries have lower national incomes now than they had in 1980 or, in some cases, in 1960. Half of Africa’s 880 million people live on less than US$ a day. Its entire economic output is no more than $420 billion, just 1.3% of world GDP, less than a country like Mexico … It is the only region where per capita investments and savings have declined since 1970. It is the only region where school enrollment is falling and where illiteracy is still commonplace … It is also the only region where life expectancy is falling. On a list drawn up by the United Nations Development Program, all twenty-five countries that rank lowest in terms of human development are African.
This litany of figures is dispiriting to me. It makes the situation seem more urgent but also more hopeless. But, these figures are also impersonal. I remember hearing statistics like that back in the US; I realized there was a problem but couldn’t imagine or understand the reality of people in that sort of situation. Now, I think I’m getting a slightly better grip on it because my friends, neighbors, colleagues and students all live this reality.
So, I want to share with you also some data about the district (the equivalent of a county) where I live. These figures helped me quantify and contemplate poverty in its particulars, on the level of daily life. In reading them, I asked myself questions like, what does poverty prevent the average person in Rwanda from doing or having? What tasks or activities is the average person obliged to do because of their poverty?
- average life expectancy = 55 years
- average births per woman = 5.3
- 323,000 people live in my district. 55% of them are under age 19; only 4% are over age 65.
- 48% are considered poor by the national government’s standards
- 33% use unimproved water sources (lakes & marshes). 60% must walk more than 15 minutes to fetch water (and then 15 minutes or more back carrying 5 gallons of water on their head)
- 83% live in houses made of mud-covered tree trunks.
- 72% live in houses with floors of beaten earth/18% have floors of hardened dung
- 76% use petrol lanterns as their main light source
- Only 45% of households have a mobile phone
- 83% are farmers for their primary occupation
- 70% raise some kind of livestock
- Only 82% of people over age 6 have ever attended school
- Only 70% are literate
- 86% of primary school-age children attend school
- Only 19% of secondary school-age children attend school
- 1.8% of people over age 6 have used a computer and would feel confident about using one again
- 3% children have only one parent living
- 14% of children are orphans, missing both their parents
- Women do an average of 33 hours of week of household work (in addition to any income-generating occupation they may have.) Men do an average of 11 hours of household work a week.
I don’t have an admonition or exhortation to end this post. Rather, I just want to contemplate, for a moment, how wide the gulf is between the developed and the developing worlds. Even though I know it does, it’s hard for me to remember & believe that a place like America really exists while I’m living here. When I go back there I bet it will be just as hard for me to remember & believe that Rwanda is real, too. The existences in the two places are just so different. So, I guess what I’m hoping to accomplish by providing these concrete statistics is to encourage people living in the west to think through their day and consider just how different it could be. I know I never really did that when I was living in America. My goodness, we have it good in America.
I think Paul had it right in Romans when he said that all of creation is groaning for deliverance. It will be a good thing when the evil structures of our world are transformed by our Lamb. It is a good thing when we participate in that transformation here and now.
June 4, 2013 § 1 Comment
Another church picture. Here you can see the altar as well as the big wooden chairs where the priests sit during the mass.
June 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The metal sheeting on the roof of the church in town had asbestos in it so it had to be changed. They took them all off today and yesterday. I took advantage to take some pictures of the church. You can see, it’s quite big and circular. It’s really quite beautiful and unlike any other church I’ve seen in Rwanda. Of course, this picture doesn’t show it as it usually looks.