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A Journey from Rwanda to Canada
Monday, 31 August 2009 Written by Douglas Shaw
Timmy and Douglas Shaw
From One Thousand Hills to No Hills

Imagine opening a door and entering into a land worlds apart. A land so beyond your own life experiences that you cannot even begin imagine. A land that is almost the exact opposite of your own. That is the experience of Egide Nzamurambaho. I got to know Egide when he arrived in Canada in the middle of winter to study carpentry and Canadian teaching techniques at Olds College in Alberta, Canada.

equatorAt present my wife Jayne, her friend Estee, and my son Timmy and I are at Egide’s school in Rwanda where they are teaching English and computers and I will be delivering lessons in teaching methodology.

Before I tell you Egide’s story I will describe his world as I see it with my eyes. While this is my first visit to Rwanda it is my second to Africa.

1000 hillsRwanda is called “The Land of One Thousand Hills” for good reason and as one would suspect Kivumu is no exception. Indeed, every view from Kivumu is dominated by hills. Some of the hills are terraced and according to Father Ivica Peric, the terraces by the Genocide Widows Association in the mid 1990s were the first in Rwanda. The hills are painted with hundreds of irregular shaped farms with varied patches of lush green vegetation and streaks of the rich red soil so representative of the western Rift Valley.

Thousand of small cooking fires not only perfume the air but soften the valley floors and mute the distant hills. Set against a lazy blue sky streaked with soft clouds and washed by the hazy tropical air it is an impressionist painting in real life. When one looks close you can make out tiny plantations of bananas, of coffee, potato and cassava. There are also many companion plantings of groundnut, beans, or peas. Sometimes alone, sometimes in small groupings, are papayas, oranges, grapefruit, guava, or avocado.

Rwanda landscapeAt an elevation of close to 2000 m. the climate is very pleasant and unchanging. Temperatures are constant throughout the year with a daily average temperature of about 25 degrees. Highs are about 30 degrees and night time lows about 20. There is no temperature difference between seasons; there are only differences in precipitation amounts. This is the geographical region that gives birth to Africa’s two largest rivers: the Nile and the Congo. Needless to say, there is ample moisture in the rainy season and the soil is mineral rich.

sunsetThe village of Kivumu surrounds the school. The village consists of a multitude of one story structures. Typically the houses are of dried clay block construction with a mud stucco finish, although some are finished with a cement based finish. Roofs may be of fired clay tiles, corrugated galvanized sheets, or thatch. By magnitudes the largest structures are the church buildings and Vjeko Curic School where we are working. The houses that you do see do not even remotely convey any sense of area’s population.  Even though most people live in rural areas, Rwanda has one of the world’s highest population densities.

about CanadaBeing a foreigner or “muzungu” I can hardly walk unnoticed through the village or the surrounding pathways that meander over the hills and wind through the surrounding valleys. Without exception the people are friendly and curious. That perhaps is somewhat of an overstatement as I have startled and even scared to tears a couple of small children. More than once I have had it explained to me that “the children are very feared of you” as they have not seen anyone of European descent up close excepting the Franciscan priests and sisters. Many of the adults though come up to greet you by shaking hands and wishing you well. Every school aged child (and I mean every) runs up to you to do one or all of the following: talk a few words of English, touch you, shake hands, hold your hand, or just walk with you. For the Rwandan children it seems to be both exciting and exhilarating and I suppose it is somewhat akin to the feelings Canadian children would experience riding on a high roller coaster.

At first I felt a bit of an intruder taking photos in the village. However the people here seem to be genuinely thrilled to have us take their photos. We always show them the pictures on the camera screen usually to great howls of delight. The other day we went to the church as there were three weddings. We took some photos but then started to notice that the wedding photographers were sneaking photos of us, such is the rarity of muzungus in these parts.

Egide’s school at the moment (and I suspect always) is a hub of activity. The end of the term is a week away and final exams start on Monday. As this is a trade school exams are both practical and theoretical. All the instructors are very busy preparing exams and as all diagrams, drawings, and writing are prepared by hand this is quite a laborious activity. The teachers here are a hard working and very dedicated group. Although never having had the opportunity for any post-secondary studies, or any training in pedagogy, they make up for it in enthusiasm.

ValerieAs I write this the carpentry students are noisily preparing material for their final projects. It is a far different type of noise than what I would hear in my carpentry shop in Canada. Here there is no electricity and therefore no noise from power tools, although on Tuesdays and Thursdays the generator is often fired up and then you may hear the odd hand drill being used and more commonly the gentle hum from a sewing machine of one of the second year Tailoring Students.

Noise is not really an apt description of what I hear.  I suppose all noise is relative but the sounds I am hearing are more in the form of an orchestra than anything. The rasping sounds of many jack planes slowly turning a stack of rough lumber into smooth boards dominates. Periodically a rhythmic background sound develops. This is the students rip sawing boards to width using an unusual backhand technique. The pounding of chisels with mallets provides the beat. The student’s here, as would my students in Canada, or indeed students anywhere, chatter constantly while working. The Kinyarwanda language however sounds to my uninitiated ears far more melodic than does English so the end result is more like chanting set to the beat and tempo of the workshop.

It is not just the lack of electrical machines that is noticeable here in Kivumu. It is the lack of noise from any type of powered machinery. Other than people talking or birds chirping the only sound you hear is footsteps. A bicycle going by is noticeable. A motorcycle or car going by is noteworthy. Even the highways - which are in absolutely marvelous condition, especially compared to Uganda - are remarkably free of motorized vehicles. Ivica says there are only about 25,000 licensed private vehicles in Rwanda out of a population of over 10 million.

Valerie and EgideThis was the world from which Egide left. He arrived with Father Ivica in Calgary just after Christmas last year. Alberta was under the influence of an arctic front. The temperature was -35 degrees Celsius.

The bleakness of a grey-white snow enveloping the city and washing away all colours would have been a sight strange enough but the ice fog that shrouded Southern Alberta that day made even the very air seem foreign. It was a sight stripped of every aspect of familiarity. It too was a cold unimaginable.

snowThe flight from Rwanda to Calgary suffered from many delays due to weather. The landing in London’s Heathrow was delayed due to weather and the connecting flight to Calgary was missed. Christmas bookings made rescheduling a nightmare and the only relatively quick way to Calgary was via Ottawa. Egide found the immigration and customs processes extremely confusing. Ontario born immigration officials knew little of small town Alberta and therefore never heard of Olds College. Even more absurd was when a suspicious or at least cautious immigration official asked Egide if Father Ivica, a Catholic priest, was married!

Arriving in Calgary, Egide and Father Ivica were met at the airport by Valerie Ken who brought some warm clothes. No amount of warm clothes could really prepare him for the bitter cold he faced from the airport to the car. He felt as if his ears, already hurting so much from popping during the plane ride, would fall off. Egide was to study in Alberta for four months, but now he wondered if he would even survive the night. He thought of returning home immediately but this being the first time in an aircraft and excepting studies in Uganda, the first time away from Rwanda. Father Ivica had accompanied him and it had been a necessary intervention as were the many strange obstacles to overcome. Escalators and elevators were just a few of the things Egide came across for the first time.

EgideEven the food was unrecognizable. In Kivumu cooking was done over a wood fire; three stone form a support for a pot. Typical Kivumu meals were of rice, bean, cassava, and potato. Christmas Day and Easter Sunday were especially noteworthy as these were the only days during the year when meat was consumed. Rwanda is one of the world’s poorest countries and Kivumu is a poor area even by Rwandan standards.

For the first few days canned beans were the only remotely familiar food that he tried to eat. Egide had at first been pleasantly surprised that food was served on the airplane. He had tried everything that was offered on the first meal. Due in part to the strangeness of the food and perhaps in part to the excitement of the trip he felt quite ill. Afterwards he ate only the potatoes from the airline meals.

snow peaksWhen Egide first saw snow he could only think it was ugali, a type of white corn or maize pudding which is a staple common throughout Sub-Sahara Africa. Hungry and wishful for the familiar, Egide grabbed a handful at the first chance. Shocked and horrified by the wet cold of that first handful of snow he recoiled in fear.

Looking back Egide has trouble remembering whether events of the first few days in Canada occurred in the daytime or nighttimes. Kivumu is only about 100 km. south of the equator and with the predictable equatorial sun days vary only a minute or two during the year. In Kivumu there is no electricity and one always knows that the sun sets at 6:00 pm and rises at 6:00 am. Dawn and dusk are 20 minute events.  One moment it is sunny the next a darkness illuminated only by starlight. Households are dependant upon candles or kerosene lanterns to provide light. In Canada night and day blended. Everything was lit up and it was so bright in the houses at night that it was hard to believe it was not day.

Venturing outside in the middle of a Canadian winter posed its own hazards. Egide found it almost impossible at first to walk on the icy sidewalks. Lay on the sidewalk, sprawl across the sidewalk, he could do that.

EgideFor a Canadian child a patch of ice is but a playground. Sliding across the ice can melt away many enjoyable hours each winter. This childhood practice makes for an instinctual sense of balance on ice later in one’s life. Instinctual is not really the proper term. You cannot attempt to think about what you are to do when you start to slide on ice for the proper reaction is completely counterintuitive. On firm ground when a foot starts to slip you will try to shift your weight and apply more pressure to the slipping foot in an attempt to regain your balance. Soon you hit an area less muddy, less slippery. Try that on ice and you, with a little help from gravity, will find your self in some of the most unflattering of horizontal positions. Slipping on ice demands the very practiced response of non-action, non-intervention. You relax, you go with the slide, you enjoy the slide. In theory at least. Sometimes we native Canadians somehow anger gravity only to end up staring at the sky. Realizing this, empathy comes easy for a newcomer having an intimate encounter with an icy sidewalk.

Despite the ice and cold, Egide saw an incredible beauty within the wintry scenes. Looking closer he noticed the intricate lace like patterns of the frost, the subtle waves across the snow created the wind, the sparkles in the sky from sunlight hitting ice crystals. It was surely a landscape of diamonds, jewels, and magic. As I see beauty in the Rwandan panorama so too did Egide in Canada. I suppose this speaks more to how fast we all can turn the extraordinary to ordinary, the sacred to profane.

EgideAfter a few days in Calgary Egide arrived at for studies at Olds College. The college was one of the first agricultural colleges in Alberta and is located about an hours drive north of Calgary in the town of Olds. Olds is perhaps the quintessential Alberta small town. Look to the west and you see the Rocky Mountains. The first Europeans to view these mountains called them the Shinning Mountains and on a winter’s morning illuminated by the raising sun one sees why. The mountains appear as a gold curtained wall extending from north to south. Look any other direction and the land slowly fades into the horizon. The land appears so flat that one is never sure if you can see a slight hill or just drifted snow.

The town is bisected by a north-south railway line and the parallel highway. Both the highway and railway had connected Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta’s two major cities. Now both these transportation links have been surpassed by a more modern highway six kilometres to the east. This highway is the second busiest in Canada. Further disfiguring the town is an east west running highway that serves mainly as a convenient and more scenic shortcut for the Edmonton holidayer heading to the mountain resorts.

Olds originally was a railway station - the sixth siding from Calgary- and water stop for the first steam engines. The town soon filled with European settlers ready to exploit the seemingly vacant and fertile lands. In this area smallpox had filled the role of the cavalry further south in the United States and forced the surviving native peoples into small enclaves. Even more devastating than bullets, whole villages were wiped out overnight. Like ripples in a pond disturbed by a thrown stone, the farms and town spread outward from that first siding. Agriculture has reigned for most of the town’s existence. On the east side of the tracks towering grain elevators announced this fact to all, but now almost all these proud giants have been felled.

On the other side of the tracks was Main Street; the business and commercial centre of the town. The names on the storefronts were once the names of the town’s founders, movers and shakers. Today the main street’s beauty has faded and younger more modern suitors have arrived with the names Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire. The names on the storefronts are now corporate and multinational entities. Today it is not so much agriculture but consumerism and the petrochemical industry that reign.

However to all but the historian Olds, like almost any other prairie town, appears not to be built around the railway but around the hockey arena. The role of the hockey in shaping Canadian culture is often understated. In small rural communities across Canada the arena was among the first publicly funded buildings constructed and almost always the first large public facility. Schools could open in a converted house, town governments could operate out of the church hall, but hockey demanded its own edifice.

elephantUnlike Kivumu where pathways are sometimes transient, sometimes fixed due to geographic constraints, but always windy, the streets and paths of Olds are laid out with a surveyor’s precision and bureaucrat’s permanence. One feels that even with hills, valleys, or waterways, Olds would still be made to conform to this grid pattern. To someone born in a landscape where hills dominate and supply all the information of direction and location, the prairies are a disorientating prospect. In Kivumu even when visiting someone far away in the hills you would receive directions stating the next hill to which you should proceed. From there you would ask someone and they would point out the next hill. This system of course falls apart in a landscape where you are the tallest natural object from horizon to horizon.

african elephantEven worse was the Prairie habit of giving directions by compass point. Most directions are along the lines of “Turn north at the store. Walk three blocks and the turn west.” Never having seen or used a compass this can be confusing information indeed. More confusing yet was the long time resident‘s “Turn north where the old gas station used to be.” type-of-direction. Settling in at any college dormitory takes time. The dorm is where many of the young people in Canada are confronted with the inadequacies of their worldly knowledge. Strange machines with which they have had no experience - like washers and dryers - cause confusion and piles of dirty laundry to soon accumulate awaiting that first weekend visit back home.

For Egide learning how to use the washer and dryer was not the immediate problem. Every thing was beyond his experience. It seemed every toilet operated differently. The ones he learned to use in the airports and at Calgary looked and operated differently than the dorm’s. Just as confusing were sinks and shower controls. In Kivumu no one had either flush toilets or showers or running water. In fact there was no safe drinking water and it may be an hours walk just to get the untreated water.

Even the most ordinary of Canadian objects were a source of amazement and as often as not, confusion. Doors often closed by themselves and sometimes even opened by themselves. Sometimes but not always. Egide at first never knew quite when to try to close a door and when to let it close itself. The automated doors that opened and closed when they sensed your presence where especially fascinating and Egide spent one whole night “teasing the door” stepping forward to make the door open and then stepping back to trick the door into closing.

monkeyFor the first week or so even exiting the dorm was an adventure. The buildings in Canada were so different from the buildings around Kivumu. It seemed there were an uncountable number of doorways in which to leave the dorm and each way seemed to lead to a different area of the campus. In fact many of the buildings on campus even seemed to look the same. Without the hills to orientate himself, Egide often exited one building only to turn the wrong way and start walking away from his destination. This mistake seemed to happen in a ratio directly proportional to the coldness of the ambient temperature.

lionsCollege cafeteria food will never rise to the status of having a dedicated show on the Food Network.  It tends to be conservative, economical, and utilitarian. The use of seasoning tends to be conservative which is a politer way of saying indiscernible. Even so almost all the food was unrecognizable and unpalatable to Egide. Remembering his unease after eating the airline food he chose the only vaguely familiar food: chicken and chips. This became his meal twice a day for the majority of his time at the college. Feeling experimental he had fish and chips once or twice a month and near the end of his time in Canada he finally worked up to liking cheeseburgers and chips! He is still recalled fondly by the cafeteria staff as “the man who always ate chicken and chips”.

girafeOne of the most striking aspects of Canadian life that Egide noticed was the rapidity in which we conduct our lives. To this day he is amazed at the speed we worked, the pace we walked, and the general busyness of our lives. Everyone in Canada seemed to be rushing off somewhere. Failing that we seemed just to be rushing back from somewhere. Despite the fact that everyone was going to someplace else the sidewalks seemed to be devoid of people. It took him a few days to realize that all the people were sequestered in the abundant automobiles. Just in an hour’s drive from Calgary to Olds he had seen more cars that he had seen in his entire life.

Time too differed in Canada and not just the time differences resulting from two points literally half a world apart. In Kivumu time had a built in flexibility as many people do not have clocks although this is changing rapidly with the availability of $20.00 cell phones and incredibly cheap rates. Still, in Kivumu a 10:00 am appointment usually means about 10:00 am plus, or very rarely, minus. 11:00 am, noon, or 1:00 pm would work too, in fact the next day probably would be alright. In Canada 10:00 am meant 10:00 am, not 9:55 am and certainly not 10:02 am.

hillsDuring his time at Olds College Egide took the first and second period carpentry apprenticeship classes. As one would guess there are vast differences between carpentry in Canada and Rwanda. In Rwanda materials and tools are the greatest expense.  Labour costs are negligible. In Rwanda carpentry tools cost about 300% of would they do in Canada. The average first year apprentice in Canada is paid about 80 times what a carpenter in Rwanda is paid. Simply put, the real cost of hand tools for a carpenter in Rwanda is around 240 times higher.

In the Canadian construction industry the faster you can accomplish a task the cheaper the end cost. Money spent on tools and machinery that saves on manpower can be recouped very quickly. In Canadian industry where even the cost of treating a small injury with a Band-Aid can approach $100.00 in lost time, the costs accumulated in providing for the health and safety of workers ultimately pay off huge dividends both monetarily and social. This is the opposite of Rwanda where for the cost of a pair of cheap safety glasses you could hire a labourer from dawn to dusk for a week. For the cost of a pair of safety boots you could hire 3 carpenters for the month.

Today in Canada you all but have to show carpentry apprentices what is a hammer, such has been the impact of the air or pneumatic nailers on the industries. Power circular saws and cordless drill would by my guess outnumber their hand powered counterparts 10 to 1. Little today is done by hand. But as hand tool skills are transferable to power tool skills and perhaps in part due to tradition, the lab component for first year apprenticeship training concentrates on hand skills. In this area Egide excelled.

Although most tools were similar and some exactly the same as what he used in Rwanda, there too were many that Egide had never seen before. In Rwanda the mantra was adapt the tool or procedure to fit with what was available. In Canada it was buy a new specialized tool.

Egide on airplaneIt was within the classrooms that Egide found some of the most profound differences between Canada and Rwanda. The education system in Rwanda as in almost every developing country is very traditional, authoritative and teacher directed. The teacher is the one and only expert in the classroom, the students unfilled vessels awaiting the knowledge that they are to receive from the teacher. For a student to ask a question would be to challenge the teacher and to admit that they were not paying attention as the focus is on rote learning. Ask a question of the teacher and you would be more apt to receive a slap than an answer.

In the Western world the John Dewey inspired model of student centred and cooperative learning has all who are in the classroom being active participants in learning. The teacher’s role is to facilitate how to learn. While not without its critics our system is by my esteem far superior; the focus being on independent thought and the development of critical thinking skills.

carpentersIt was very difficult for Egide to make the leap across the chasm that separates the two systems. It seemed very strange when the instructor would ask the student’s opinion on something. As Egide said it was a sharing of knowledge where the teacher and students learn from each other not a telling of knowledge where the teachers just tell the students. As time went by Egide came to admire this new way of learning.

Another thing that perplexed Egide was the problem solving emphasis with mathematics. He had been taught mathematics as many separate operations and as exercises in recalling memorized equations, now he was being asked to apply the equations in real life situations. Recalling knowledge was what his system stressed. The application of that knowledge was what we stress.

Throughout his stay in Canada Egide was constantly amazed at how friendly and curious Canadians were. Most people had heard of Rwanda due to the genocides but far fewer new exactly where it was located. Few people had a clear picture of what life was like in either Africa or in Rwanda.

Egide was in constant amazement with all the different people he met every day. People from all over Canada, from the United States and Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia, and even Africa. Egide met people who had traveled to Rwanda and even on occasions other Rwandese.

guitar boyBy the end of his four month visit Egide had made many friends, had many new experiences, and learned much. As he said about his trip “I have done more things in the last few months than I thought I could do in a lifetime”. Perhaps his greatest challenges will be in the future as he tries to explain and implement some of what he has learned. Although the primary goal of Egide’s trip to Canada had been to expose him to new ideas especially in education, I suspect that many of the changes will be totally unanticipated. Yesterday Egide and my 14 year old son made hockey sticks and organized a street hockey game.

Father Vjeko Center

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