Molasses Tuesday*

Previously,  I wrote about the difference between high and low context cultures in an earlier blog entitled “Molasses Monday”.  Contrary to my previous experiences in low context cultures, the molasses effect I experienced upon arriving at my work site has still not receded, although it has changed in both density and color.

Over the last three months since my arrival in Ruhango, I have experienced brief moments of “ah-ha” where I thought I had finally broken through the syrup, such as when  my supervisor enthusiastically approved a plan for integrating English proficiency classes into a curriculum that was primarily knowledge-based, as opposed to skill-based, and we prepared a grant proposal to seek funding to support our plan.  But even this moment of clarity was short-lived. The molasses returned, and seemed to deepen, as the weeks passed by and the academic calendar kept being pushed back further and further.  With few students, and even fewer teachers in evidence at the college, it became clearer and clearer to me that I did not yet have enough information to make reasonable sense of my experience.  I could see that something was wrong.   Even in a country in which changing the start of the academic year was common practice, 6 weeks was unheard of.  Public schools had already closed for the winter holiday and still classes had not started at the college.   Worse still, in terms of being able to make meaning from my experience, my supervisor was no longer available, either because he was not on campus at all or because, when he was present, he was in meetings.   Something more was going on beyond the usual high to low contexts differences.

Last week, I finally was given some of the information that I was missing:  The college, now in its fifth year, has not yet received accreditation from the Ministry of Education.  This meant that students who had completed their four years could not be graduated.  Clamoring for their diplomas and being unable to get them has led prospective new students to refuse to enroll, despite having their program of study fully funded, until they can be assured that, unlike their predecessors, they will indeed receive diplomas upon completion of their studies.   Finally, the sea of molasses parted to reveal what appears to be an institution in crisis.  Low context culture notwithstanding, everything has come to a halt, more-or-less, and no end is in sight.  The Ministry of Education was anticipated to come in early November, but we are just passing mid-month, and no one has appeared.   I learned today that a meeting has now been scheduled for December 6.

While issues with accreditation, and the accompanying refusal of new students to enroll, does explain the rather “tomb-like” atmosphere of the college, it does not in any way shed any light on what I will be doing here for the next nine months of my service.  In fact, if I had not decided, on my own, to develop teaching-learning materials for teaching English as a foreign language, I would have had little to show for my first three months of service.    Questions continue to rise and recede in my mind like waves on the sandy shore of my relatively solitary existence in the small dusty transit town that I have grown to love.   Would I have to leave?  Where would I go?  What would I do?  What would I do without my beloved tutor, my only anchor in the sea of the unknown that was swirling around me?  Would I find a new tutor whom I liked as much?   To whom should I speak about the situation at the college?  What should I say?   It is, after all, none of my business; I am just a foreign educator, and I am not here to stay.  Who should make  decisions about my future?   Was it realistic to expect that, any time soon, accreditation will be granted, students will be graduated, and new students will enthusiastically return?  Or was I watching an institution fail, in which case the process somehow felt too personal for me  to witness at all.    Did I, an outsider, with no personal investment beyond the immediate, and no power to impact the final outcome, really have any right to be be here?   Peace Corps is, in theory, responsible for finding me gainful employment and housing but, usually, after that, volunteers are on their own.  But what do they do when the institution they have selected for me disappears before our eyes?   Do they come blazing in on a white stallion and whisk me off to a greener pasture or do they wait as more months pass, trusting in some final outcome that will give me something meaningful to do?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to any of my questions.  The molasses is thicker than ever although now, at least, I know that it does not originate here in this tiny college, but rather with the Ministry of Education.  Somewhere, between their expectations that it has of the college and the college’s ability to meet their requirements, lies the truth.  And so, I wait.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about my current situation is that I am not particularly bothered by it.  Sure, I’d like to know what is going to happen.  Sure, I wish there were answers already waiting on my doorstep.   Sure, I’d like to feel that somewhere in all the molasses rests a truth that will be one day, satisfyingly revealed.    I came here with absolutely no agenda other than to be here and, hopefully, to contribute in some meaningful way.  But I am in no hurry to be anywhere.   I have the luxury of a home waiting for me halfway around the world, of adequate food and shelter here, although my current housing contract will end in a month.  Even then, when that particular wave  provoked some consternation as it rolled onto my mental shores, it too has receded into the ocean of unanswered questions across which I now sail.

I mean, after all, Peace Corps is  responsible for my housing.  Should I find myself homeless without advance warning and, although I might not like where they would have to put me for the short term, while they figured out what to do with me for rest of my service, it is their responsibility, and not mine.   A fact that is as overwhelming comforting to know as it has been irritating in those moments when I realized that, as long as they were responsible for me, I could not travel to my beloved Mombasa, due to travel restrictions related to the political instability in Kenya.   There are definite advantages to not being in charge.

Physically, I feel that I am as healthy as I can be at my age, and with Lyme.  Those pesky little spirochetes are not as much a part of my physiology as the trillions of cells that I was born with.  My mind is clear, I am still enjoying Kinyarwaanda, although I sure wish I could find people who knew how to speak very slowly.  Writing teaching-learning materials, and describing the theoretical foundation upon which they methodologically rest has turned out, to be, surprisingly perhaps, very rewarding professionally.  Writing a grant proposal got my grant-writing skills back up and running and, even if we can never implement the plan we had for program development and capacity-building at this particular site, I know it was a good plan, and it would be interesting to implement somewhere else one day.   Although based on the needs of this institution, their challenges are not all that different from those found in other, presumably accredited, institutions in a country which is trying to become completely Anglophone in what might ultimately wind up  being the shortest time frame in the history of the world.

Overall, life is good.   I’ve just made some absolutely delicious mashed potatoes with fresh cow’s milk and butter imported from Germany.  Yes, I still like to spoil myself, and, although I hate to say it and I don’t want anyone to quote me, Rwandan butter really tasted awful, although the fresh milk is good.  I’m not quite sure what happens on the journey from milk to butter, but clearly something does.   Even the shopkeeper at the Indian market in Kigali where I buy many of my staples shook his head sadly in solemn agreement when I went there to buy Ugandan and Indian ghee, clarified butter, to replace my jar of the Rwandan equivalent.

Last but not least, there is always the reality that, although the issues today are very real, and the problems they pose loom larger than life whenever I set foot on campus,  “this too shall pass”.    That is, I, and probably everyone else at the college, will undoubtedly be occupying ourselves with other concerns in just a few months time.  

One of the things I like best about getting older is that I know that, whatever happens, it will soon have made  its journey out of my present to reside in all its memorable glory in my ever-lengthening history.  I still marvel every time I say to someone,   “Oh, I first came to East Africa  45 years ago!”   (Actually, it is now 47 years ago; I had the pleasure of turning 21 in Nairobi.)      I honestly think that being 25 years old is highly over-rated.

But really, when I think about it, what more could a girl ask for?     Other than…. perhaps….          just a little less molasses?


*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.