on saying goodbye

saying goodbye is difficult here.  here, it is looking someone in the face and knowing that, even if by some miraculous turn of events i find myself in rwanda again some day, the chances of seeing that face again are minute.  yes, i’ve given my email address out, with hopes that they’ll send me updates about their lives, but for most, internet access is hard to come by.  the faces are sad but smiling, wistful, in contrast with the bright and hopeful faces that greeted me on arrival.  i’ve received countless thank-you letters from students, carefully spell-checked and copied onto nice paper and slipped into the flimsy air-mail envelopes that are ever-so-readily available.  some have added a photograph to remember them by.  i myself have posed with studetns and teachers alike for hundreds of photos.  at my first goodbye party, the photographer made a killing while i stood with student after student, some of which i hadn’t even taught, all lined up outside the frame like for santa claus at the mall.  after three rolls of film, my face hurt from smiling and i was seeing stars.

the first goodbye party was organized by the english club students and well-attended.  looking out at the faces of my favorite students from all my classes, i gave a teary speech, thank-you cards to the leaders, and books to this and last year’s presidents.  they gave speeches, read poems, performed skits, sang songs, and presented gifts.  they asked me to promise that someday i would return to rwanda.  i cried.

the second goodbye party, for both amanda and i this time, was sponsored by the headmaster.  there were drinks for all and an impressive buffet with more meat than the guests could eat.  the president of the parents’ association was there, as were a select group of ‘important’ students.  the teachers were notified of mandatory attendance an hour beforehand, just after we finished deliberation (a frustrating and divisive event that left me so angry i almost refused to attend the party).  we were placed at a separate vip table where we couldn’t talk to anyone.  the prefet des etudes gave a long speech in kinyarwanda, then apologized and gave a one-minute paraphrase in french.  the head of teachers gave a nice speech in french saying how amanda’s and my odd methodology somehow managed to motivate the students, and saying how the teachers regretted not attending our teacher-training courses, particularly now that rwanda is to become anglophone next year (!).  the dean of students thanked us in english, which no one but us understood, but by this point the guests were all drunk and loudly congratulated him for his skill in english.  there were nice (drunken) speeches from a math teaacher and from the president of the parents’ association.  one of the congolese teachers, speaking for ‘the congolese colony’, asked us to find them sponsors for university in europe.  amanda spoke and no one listened to her.  then the headmaster yelled at everyone for being drunk and not giving presents.  he asked us to remember apagie school and do some fund-raising when we returned to europe (?).  then we received presents from the administration and the photographer was called in and my face hurt and i saw spots. 

one chink in the elation of feeling appreciated here, is the rwandan tendency to say ‘thank you and now i need…’ a dictionary, school fees, your picture, sponsorship, your laptop, your digital camera.  i sometimes want to scream ‘you’re welcome, bye!’ after the thank you part, before the i need part.  amanda says ‘you know in my culture, we just say thank you. we don’t ask for more stuff’ like she’s a mom calmly reprimanding a child for being impolite.

but i’m done complaining today.  i have taught my last english class.  i will never again walk into a room of 50 kids shouting ‘how are you, teacher? teacher, what’s up?’  i will never again cheer them for a particularly good discussion, or walk from desk to desk answering questions, or choose from outstretched hands begging to be called on, nearly standing to get my attention, snapping their fingers and shouting ‘me, teacher! me!’.  i will never again smile a hello as i pass them in the road, or spend hours chatting with the ones who are close friends now – david, kizito, bosco, innocent, rafiki, jean de dieu, jackson and justin (the peanut gallery from senior 6), edson, emmanuel, desire, freddy, fidele, jean baptiste, robert, the list goes on and on.  my students.  they are why i came here, they are the faces i will never forget.  they have taught me more than i ever could have taught them.  in david’s words, ‘how can i say goodbye? it is like crying.’

to the students of apagie musha: thank you so much.  i will miss you.

jean de dieu, david, and bosco all together now, at the english club party (that's the headmaster to my right) saying thanks to robert, kizito, and delphin

~ by aliciawolcott on November 13, 2008.

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