First off, I apologize for my relatively long absence. Things have been picking up speed here in Rwanda as the first school term comes to an end, and I haven't been able to make it out for internet in some time.
Speaking of school, first term classes officially ended on Thursday, March 17th. Students take exams in every subject they have classes in, which under Ordinary Level (grades 7, 8, and 9) is about 13 exams. Advanced Level (grades 10, 11,12) is a little different because they do not all have the same classes. After 9-year basic education, classes take on 'combinations' which are essentially specializations. There are dozens of combinations for A-level, but most schools only offer a few at most. My school offers HEG ( History – Economics – Geography), MEG (Mathematics – Economics – Geography), and MPG (Mathematics – Physics – Geography).
Exams are broken into two categories: out-series and in-series. Almost all classes are on-series and only a few (namely ICT, French, Spiritual Activity, and Creative Performance) are out-series. Exams officially started Friday the 18th with all out-series exams, including my ICT classes. The grading system for each class in based around marks, like points. Students get 10 marks for each class-hour per week on homework and another 10 for their final exam. This means that my 2-hour ICT classes get 40 marks total while my Mathematics class gets 120 marks.
In-series exams took place the following week and wrapped up yesterday (Friday the 25th), but we're not done with the semester yet. Next week (the 28th-1st) is the final week of term and is set aside for grading exams. Holiday officially begins the 2nd of April, although many teachers (and students) will travel home before then.
The exams themselves are also something of an oddity. Students usually have between 2 and 3 hours per exam, although it rarely takes them that long. As English is the official language of instruction, all exams are also given in English (except, of course, French and Kinyarwanda). This leads to a few relatively minor complications as many students (and, indeed, many of my fellow teachers) have difficulty with proper English grammar and syntax.
NOTE: I hardly claim to be an expert on Kinyarwanda. As such, you should neither 'risk your life' nor 'bet the house' on the following information about Kinyarwanda.
One of the major difficulties my students (and again, the teachers as well) have with written English is punctuation, more specifically with sentence length. However, there is a rather logical explanation for this. While Kinyarwanda has a general syntax, it is almost devoid of punctuation except the occasional period. For example, the have a specific word to add exclamation to a thought, 'pe', and as such rarely use the exclamation point in writing Kinyrwanda. For example:
Go quickly. = Genda vuba.
Go quickly! = Gende vuba pe.
In addition, the conjugation of Kinyrawanda verbs combines all parts into one single word, meaning that simple English sentences can be expressed as a single word in Kinyrawanda. For example:
I am dancing. = Ndabyina (root verb 'kubyina' is 'to dance', remove 'ku-' and add prefix nda- (present continuous single))
You all crowd around and stare. = Bashungereye (root verb is 'gushengera', remove 'gu-' and add prefix 'ba-' (you all), suffix 'ra-' become 'reye-' (past tense))
Now you can begin to see the complexity of this language, although once you understand how to conjugate a root verb in the different forms, its' easy to pick out the objects of a verb, even if you have no idea what the verb is.
Because Kinyarwanda verbs are consolidated into one word (sometime the objects of the verb can even be made into infixes), and a Kinyarwanda sentence of 10 words can contain many different thoughts. Here's an example of an English sentence I found on a student's history test:
"The water is very important part to Roman people because everybody need water for cooking, drinking, washing and this water need to be near people so they could have it easy and this is why I say they made city near water.
(I find it ironic that as I typed that, spellchecker didn't flag any part of it as grammatically incorrect)
Besides a few minor subject-verb agreements (a whole other can of worms), this sentence expresses about 19 different ideas at the same time and should probably be streamlined and broken into several distinct sentences based around complete thoughts. You could probably write this sentence in Kinyarwanda using far fewer words (I'm not even going to try to translate it correctly).
One of the major non-linguistic challenges here in Rwanda is the previous (and sometime still on-going) reliance on rot learning (learning my strict memorization). For instance, I can recite the squares of the number up to about 16 just because I used rot learning to memorize them. Past 16, I need to start doing actually calculation in my head to find them. It isn't uncommon for a teacher to simply give a student his notebook and tell them to write the notes on the board and have the other students copy it down. The first few weeks of my math classes, it nearly blew the students' minds that I would actually explain a concept to them and re-explain if they didn't yet understand. They are so used to having to copy everything down (remember: no textbooks/ very very few textbooks) and trying to make sense of it later.
One of the ways this manifests itself in my ICT classes is in the way they answer their exam questions. For instance I defined Information Communication Technology as 'any tool used to send, receive, or process news, data, or information of any kind.' I then proceeded to explain the definition I a way they could readily understand. Even though they were able to paraphrase my definition in class, all 200 of my ICT students answered the exam question using the exact same wording I had given them with almost no deviation in word choice. While they scored well because this is, in fact, the definition I expected, I have no idea if they actually know what ICT means or if they simply fell back on their rot learning and memorized the pattern of words to answer the question.
I think I've mentioned before that Cyahinda, my site, has no power. Well, I now I have proof that this is about to change. Last week a fleet of industrial trucks rolled into my backwater town and started dropping power poles and erecting carriage towers. Still, the actual date the electricity will come depends on who you ask. The local Rwandans say 'tomorrow', my school staff say 'by the end of second term', but my mind just prays 'before December of 2012' (because that's when I'm scheduled to finish my service, not because the Mayans say the world will end, although the actual date I am expected to close service is awfully close to December 21st…)
Speaking of which, I led my Senior 4 ICT class on a tangent a week or two ago about the solar system. Just as class was ending, it started to downpour outside and, seeing how Rwandans believe they'll melt if they get wet, my students insisted I stay until it lets up. While waiting, I noticed they had a poster on the wall describing the 9 planets and I dutifully informed them that our solar system actually has only 8 planets as Pluto was ruled to not count a few years back due to its irregular orbit, among other things. This, of course, blew their minds. A student then promptly raised his hand and asked, and I quote exactly, "why do all Americans think the world will in in 2012?" After a good laugh and informing them that not all Americans believe this, I gave them a crash course on the mechanics of the cyclical Mayan Calendar and a little insight into why some people believe ion the '2012 doomsday prophecy'.
Semester break starts on April 2nd and runs until the 25th. While there won't be any classes, and thus not much structure to my days here at my site, Peace Corps still wishes me to stay here as much as possible. Thankfully, I'll have what Peace Corps calls IST (In-Service Training), a week-long additional training event held during the last week of break. All 65 or so of us in my training group will reunite for this one week in Kibuye (on Lake Kivu to the west). Sure, there will be technical training and workshops to attend, but if Peace Corps thinks that there won't be any shenanigans, they're sadly mistaken.