Student Becomes Teacher, And Vice Versa

My fellowship year has already felt like a series of situations I never thought I would find myself in, and every time I think I’m getting a hold of things, the next unexpected experience comes shooting down the pipeline.


My job in Burundi is to help get the establishment of a rural health clinic off the ground, but my organization has already begun to build out the site where said medical facility will be located in a number of ways, including the operation of two family-based homes for orphaned children from the surrounding mountains. The children in these homes are cared for by two women (whom we call the “mamas”), a tutor, a cook, and a number of employees who assist with security, construction, and agricultural projects at the site.


After hearing that the Kirundi-speaking staff were interested in learning English and motivated by the desire to get to know them all better, I volunteered to teach a weekly course, not truly registering until five minutes into the first session that I had never even observed an English class before, let alone taught one. We had fun, and laughed at the gestural nature of our communications given my limited Kirundi (frenetic waving of my appendages indicated “arms” and “legs”), but I left feeling a bit unsatisfied and disorganized. I went home and put together a list of vocabulary that seemed relevant to the surroundings—children, village, school—and went to sleep feeling optimistic about our next meeting.


The following week was certainly enjoyable, but I still felt like something was missing. Heeding the fact that many of my colleagues had their studies halted at a very young age, I avoided a structural, written approach to the language and focused on its conversational application. I thought I was choosing words and phrases that made sense in context and would be easy to remember, but we seemed to be hitting a wall in terms of processing and recall. It took a 20-year old member of the organization’s security staff communicating through a more anglophone friend that they wanted to start from the beginning—with the alphabet—for me to realize that I shouldn’t have discounted the necessity of the basics so quickly. “He says,” translated the intermediary colleague “that you need to teach him how to read in English, so that he can be intelligent.” I concluded class, promising to start afresh the following week.


Yesterday, my class learned the English alphabet. Our hour together was spent studying each individual letter, and by the end each of my students was pairing vowels with consonants in almost perfect pronunciation.  A call of “ma me mi mo mu!” from one side of the room was answered by “ba be bi bo bu!” from the opposite corner. I was sitting back enjoying the din of familiar phonetics when I realized what would really make this lesson stick. There’s a little song many of us know—possibly one of the first we ever learned—and its lyrics are simple: “A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y and Z.” My stomach turned. I am not a singer and never have been, yet within seconds I was in front of the room, belting out each letter loud enough to communicate proper diction. I was singing with a smile on my face when the group circled around and joined in on the third time through.


Maybe it had to do with a group of complete strangers welcoming me into their community and telling me I had something of value that they wanted me to share. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I hear singing almost everywhere I go here—at home, in the streets, over a shared meal at a gathering with Burundian friends where our food was preceded by collaboration on a Kirundi worship song (a night after which I floated home on the voices of friends, realizing how few of mine at home have ever heard me sing.) Maybe, also, it had something to do with the fact that sticking out in this community seems to diminish the danger of leaving my comfort zone. Which is to say: the knowledge that they’ll be looking at me anyway. Either way, it felt communal and welcoming and easy, and the transmission of knowledge was palpable.


Most importantly, this exchange taught me the power of literacy and of how straightforwardly it can be spread. By learning how to read English, my colleagues feel empowered to not only memorize a few words and phrases of a language, but to learn it in a sustainable way that will enable them to continue deepening their knowledge long after my fellowship ends, and even in between our weekly sessions. I’ll be listening to them closely regarding what they want to learn as the year goes on, encouraging them to take their learning into their own hands and make our classroom a conversation, not a one-way exchange. As teacher, I am just a tool, and it is an honor to help them harness their capacity and intellect; just as it will be to help provide their community with freedom and choice in healthcare.