My students have been teaching me a few words in Kinyarwanda. At the beginning of each class I hand over a piece of chalk to one of the students. He or she then marches up to the blackboard and scratches out a word on the right hand side of the worn board. Then I say it aloud and without fail, unabashedly butcher it. My rough attempts are met with guffaws, and thanks to a few sympathetic students, a scattering of proper pronunciations. It’s fun. We start every class this way and I like it.
Teaching radio is hard enough without dealing with this constant language barrier. Case in point: the first word my students taught me was “buhoro,” Kinyarwanda for “slowly.” It’s pretty clear I talk too fast and my students have trouble following me. I’m starting to learn now, though, and have started checking in more often with the students.
I say, “Sybio?”
They reply, “Nybio.”
“You got it?”
“Yeah, we got it.”
I have about 22 students in the class. We meet three times a week in a big old classroom with a concrete floor, a high ceiling mounted with one fluorescent bulb and dozens of small wooden side desks. Each morning I find the cleaner dousing the floor with buckets of soapy water, mopping up the mud from the day before with a broom wrapped in a stained rag. This morning I jumped over one of the pools on the floor, and as casually as I could, offered up “mybabarila” or “sorry” as I scooted past.
My first day was tough. A small American film crew, carting a camera, a tri-pod and two big smiles, showed up before any of the students. I’d met them a few days earlier and heard about their plans to shoot a documentary about journalism in Rwanda. I knew little else. My students didn’t know anything. I introduced the two filmmakers to blank stares and folded arms. I tried telling a joke. They wouldn’t budge. Not a chuckle, a smile or even a flinch. In the end, the film crew didn’t shoot anything that day.
These days, we all get along. The filmmakers have even been back and shot some footage. Apparently, they’ll be following the students and me around for the next couple of months.
I’m teaching radio production with two brand new marantz recorders, pried out of the careful and hesitant hands of the director over at Radio Salus, my newish Olympus recorder and a studio equipped with two microphones and a mixer. Sure, it’s not quite the recorder-per-student I’d like, but the students don’t seem to mind working in groups, and why should I.
Meanwhile, life in Butare is great. I love the 40 minute walk to school each morning. It’s one long road all the way there, and it’s always jammed with people: some in high heel shoes carefully plucking their way to work, others walking briskly in no shoes at all. Thanks to my students and an especially gregarious and keen project coordinator, I’ve learned a smattering of phrases and words in Kinyarwanda. When I’m feeling confident I’ll toss some out to people passing by – usually it earns me a wide, beautiful white-toothed smile.