Learning Within the Community

May 30, 2013

  Shuffling towards the green clubhouse, clutching my morning coffee, I can’t help but think of my pillow and how underutilized it was the night before. It takes everything I have not to look both ways, quickly turn around, and slip back home. 

But my feet keep carrying me, and moments later, I am greeted with the beaming smiles of Mama Dior and Mama Annunciata. We receive each other with “maramuches” (good morning) and “amakurus” (how are you?), hugging and laughing. As I pull away, they place a hand on my stomach and, clicking their tongues, tell me I look hungry. I chuckle and shake my head, feeling the image of my pillow fade into nothingness. We hurry inside and find our seats as our circle of chairs is called to order. 

“Learning Community” meetings, an initiative of the English Enrichment year-long volunteer, were created as an informal space for the Village staff to come together, practice English, and share ideas. Every week we receive a new topic, accompanied by a series of questions to discuss in small groups. Then on Wednesday mornings, we meet together as a community to present these discussions and engage in a larger, more comprehensive debate. 

When I first volunteered to take part in this project, I expected to enjoy some nice conversation, help correct a bit of English, and maybe even be exposed to a new perspective or two. I was not expecting to engage in impassioned discussions on gender equality, confront my own ideas of democratic governance, and fall in love with the distinct energy and humor of the Rwandan dialogue.    

In the four months since we began these weekly Learning Community meetings, I have learned more “truths,” factual and otherwise, about Rwanda than I could in a whole year of intensive research. We have discussed development, the evolution of Rwandan culture, gender, our core values, and the ways in which we choose to remember our pasts. 

I find myself, more often than not, taking notes, scribbling down lines and the streams of questions that arise from them, trying desperately to remember the exact phrasing a big brother or mama used. I sit at attention, watching the dynamics of the room unfold — the lines falling along age, gender, geography on any given topic. In Learning Communities, like in all good discussions, the real wisdom is not just about hearing what people have to say, but how they say it. 

I have realized however, that the most invaluable component of these weekly meetings is the opportunity to sit for an hour, surrounded by the energy and the insight of the mamas of the Village, and that is what really pulls me out of bed every Wednesday. Watching these women, who just five years earlier would not have spoken in a public gathering such as this, sit poised to respond, wagging their fingers with conviction and delivering opinions with ardent force, it is impossible not to feel their power. They command the room with their rumbling choruses of deep-throated, closed-mouth agreement and redirect discussion with their opposition views and maternal wisdom.   

With my coffee cup stored safely under my chair, I applaud enthusiastically with the group as big sister Mayble defines the difference between “favors” and “corruption.” Across the room, I see two mamas shift in their seats, readying themselves with retorts. As I look around at our little community, unable to suppress the grin that seems to constantly be forming on my lips, all I can think is, “I am one lucky guest in this circle.”

Submitted by long-term volunteer Isabel Shaw