By Kay Howell – 7:15 a.m. Dense fog rolls across the deserted schoolyard. It’s the first day of school, but the only sounds I hear are the creak of classroom doors swinging open in the breeze, and the distant cracking thud of the village waking up and chopping firewood. I check my watch. 7:17. A moving splash of neon orange and green catches my eye. It’s Jean de Dieu. His vibrant print jacket makes me suddenly feel shamefully underdressed in my sensible navy skirt and lavender blouse.
“You are punctual.” Jean de Dieu sounds surprised and a little baffled.
I’m just as confused. After all, it’s the first day of the school year, and classes are scheduled to start at 7:20. “Isn’t today the first day of school? I wanted to be here early to get settled in and meet the students,” I reply, trying not to sound as silly as I feel.
Jean de Dieu laughs. “Katerina, it is the first day of school, but the students will not come. Maybe they come in the next few weeks. And the teachers, too. This is a very village school. Ihangane.”
Ihangane. During my two years as a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer in Rwanda, I got to know that phrase very well. Literally translated from Kinyarwanda, it means “be patient.” But it encompasses so much more than that. It’s a phrase for all occasions: Do you feel sick today? Ihangane. Is the meeting starting three hours late? Be patient. Did a beloved family member pass away? Ihangane. Are you worried about what the future holds? Be patient.
Village life moves at its own pace. I came into my school armed with lesson plans and TEFL training, only to discover that on any given day half my students might be pulled out of class to work in their families’ fields—or to go get haircuts. Or perhaps my awesome lesson on the passive voice might have to be taught over the chaos and clatter of broken glass, because the builders came to install windows during my lesson. I could always count on my fellow Rwandan teachers to lend a sympathetic ear or commiserate when something inevitably prevented the school day from running smoothly. But invariably, they all agreed on the same solution: Ihangane.
My first year, every piece of me struggled against the thought of patiently accepting and working around the many uncertainties of teaching and living in a rural village. But around the one year mark, almost halfway through my Peace Corps service, a funny little thing happened. It happened so slowly I didn’t even realize it at first. Then at the end of a long and stressful day of much-interrupted teaching, I found myself reminding myself to just be patient. Ihangane had begun to sink in. I won’t pretend that my second year in Rwanda was frustration-free, or that I immediately became the most patient person in the world. However, a year of village life had changed my attitude towards dealing with uncertainty and frustration.
I would like to think that I left my tiny mountain-top village a better place than when I arrived. I know that I left a better person than when I arrived. I discovered a passion for teaching and working with young people that I didn’t know I had. And just as importantly, I learned the value of patience in the face of uncertainty and frustrations. Returning to America, a place where fast-paced efficiency is so valued, was a shock to the system. Even though I left my village three years ago, I don’t think I’ve completely adjusted. The lesson of ihangane has stayed with me.