This post is about the 5th month of our service in Rwanda. See the previous post here:
Our fifth month of Peace Corps was the month that we officially started our primary jobs as teachers. My wife teaches English and I teach CPPE (Creative Performance and Physical Education). CPPE is Art, Music, Drama, and PE. Education in Rwanda is so different from America. We use chalkboards, teach in classrooms of 70+ students, and no classes are taught in their native language. Although we have extensive training in Kinyarwanda, all classes in Rwanda are (supposedly) taught in English.
For the first week of classes, I don’t think my students understood a word I said. They had a hard time listening to a native speaker with no Rwandan accent, and also my white skin was somewhat distracting for them. At the same time, I was trying to figure out how to teach Art to 210 students with no art supplies and to teach them music with no instruments. Teaching PE was the biggest challenge when I tried to teach 70 students at a time how to play basketball with only one basketball.
My painting for this month came from a school assembly. One of the students is dressed as Intore, which is a traditional Rwandan dancer. I chose this subject because this month was full of cultural misunderstandings on both sides, and the Intore is a good example of one.
Intore men carry a spear and a shield. I assumed that he was supposed to represent a warrior. At this ceremony, the Intore gave a very moving speech that incited joyful cheers from his classmates. I assumed that it was some kind of traditional war cry based on his dress and the reaction of the students. Unfortunately, the colonizers of Rwanda thought the same thing and they destroyed a lot of Rwandan culture because of these assumptions.
I asked my students what the Intore was saying, and they told me he was praising the accomplishments of his cow. I stared blankly for a few minutes. He’s doing what? Obviously, he was just telling us all the cool things his cow did!
In Rwandan tradition, spears and shields are not for going to war, but for protecting yourself and your livestock from predators like leopards, hyenas, and thieves. He was not dressed as a warrior going to battle, but as a shepherd. He was not giving a call to arms, but a speech about how great his cow is.
I learned very quickly that when you don’t understand a culture that it is very important to not make any assumptions about what it means. More often than not, your assumptions are wrong. It is better to ask them what they are doing and learn something new.