I dreamt of Africa.
Like many children of my generation, I imagined the vast, animal-filled plains of the Savannah and boldly dark people with long, lobed ears and strange foreign clicks and whistles. I dreamt of animals; massive giraffes grazing on high treetops and lions prowling through the tall grass stalking gazelle drinking at a watering hole. I imagined heat that soaks through shirts on long, humid nights and the endless heartbeat of the ocean that hemmed the land in.
I dreamt of a world I was afraid of. A land where amidst the beauty, happiness, and adventure lay the dark underbelly of poverty, corruption, and war. My mind replayed movies of children carrying AK-47s, snarled police checkpoints with razor wires, and refugee camps further than the eye gives vision with makeshift hospitals on mud floors.
These hopes and fears replayed through my head as I boarded the plane to Rwanda for six months, chosen among 400 applicants Canada-wide to teach Nursing at the Kigali Health Institute. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, I thought. I graduated from the University of Alberta in December of 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and planned to find a job in an emergency room in Canada. When I couldn’t, I accepted the only opportunity I had to use my education, an internship through the Coady Institute and the Canadian International Development Agency.
For half a year, I was a nursing instructor at the Kigali Health Institute, attempting with my colleagues to battle inefficiencies and improve the standard of education for the nurses of Rwanda.
The conditions at the Institute were difficult and ever-changing. We dealt with scheduling problems, always worrying if we had a classroom to teach in. The one projector we shared was found without its power cord, leaving me to convert my two months of PowerPoint slides into a chalk and chalkboard format. Rewriting the curriculum to reflect current standards and teaching methods took months to finish. Teaching clinical in the hospital was a challenge, trying to restrain myself and guide students to care for patients in the most effective way. The hospitals were always a struggle for me, having to mentally deal with the individual stories and collective suffering, so much of it needless.
The biggest difference I made there was a simple one. I developed professional and personal relationships with the locals around me. Those friendships, as I look at it now, are the lasting change I left. You can't put a price on the quality or respect that two people from different worlds could share. The laughs, the memories, and the struggles we faced together are what stand out.
I learned about Rwanda through Rwandans. Whether it was learning the proper way to greet a Rwandan (using one of five greeting phrases followed by a handshake), or a new saying in the local dialect, they were always willing to share their culture with me. At the same time, I fielded questions about Canada, which hopefully no longer conjures up images of polar bears and igloos to the Rwandans. We gathered on Fridays, after enduring a long work week to unwind, like old friends at the local watering hole, shooting pool and laughing about work. We criticized each other, whether for a shoddy midterm question or an incredibly disorganized meeting. Most importantly, we succeeded together, somehow, someway, manipulating our classes to teach under increasingly difficult time constraints and lack of classroom space.
My fellow professionals were the first to treat me just as that: a Registered Nurse with the ability and knowledge to teach difficult concepts to new students.
I remember, with fondness, my first class. I was excited and nervous as 34 students, the Dean of Nursing, and the Faculty Head all crammed into an old military room that constituted the classroom. The class remained unnervingly quiet as I ploughed through an 90-minute lecture on the Central Nervous System, them never saying a word. At the end of the elaborate PowerPoint and diagram presentation, I implored them to give me any feedback. One nervous student eventually raised her hand and said, “Sir. We could not understand a word you said. Your accent is too thick and you speak too fast.” I gulped, and promised to repeat the class in the afternoon, speaking one-third the speed of what I considered normal.
My students were a source of inspiration, sharing limited computers, living in cramped quarters, and taking turns with one textbook. They were being trained to be the first degree-granted nursing students in two decades and as such had a long and chaotic schedule, a thirst for knowledge, and an aptitude for perseverance.
The six-month internship had an injection of adventure, using time off from teaching to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, scuba dive in the Indian Ocean, and take day-long train rides through South Africa. From safaris in Kenya to weekend trips to the famous Lake Kivu, dull moments were hard to come by on the varied continent.
After my time in Rwanda, I realize that my childhood dreams, to some extent, are real. The country, however, like my childish notions willed me to believe, cannot be summed up in generalizations; to do so would be missing the point, and simplifying a complex country.
Rwanda is a place where those I met are working and struggling for a better future, not yet satisfied with all of the progress that has been made. I am proud to say that I found heart in the education system, in being a part - however small- of the struggle, and appreciating the hard work being done to train the future of healthcare in the land of a thousand hills.
Till The Next Great Adventure,
Ravi Jaipaul (BScN, RN)
Read more at http://ravijaipaul.blogspot.com/