Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Q&A with Middle Schoolers in Alabama!

Dear Mr. Ethington and Students,

Thank you so much for sending these questions. It is inspiring to know that students in far away places are learning about Congo.  It is a complicated situation here, and the rest of the world can learn a lot by trying to understand what is going on here.  That you for taking the time to think, study and wonder about life in Congo. I hope that my responses will both satisfy you and spark even more questions.


Ms. Rich

1. Do your students give you a hard time in class? (from Jayla)

Not very often! Most students are fantastic and I do my best to show them the same respect that I expect them to show me. The only time I experience problems is when the lesson I prepared isn’t as engaging as it should be.  But for the most part, I work as hard as I can to make lessons challenging, interesting and enjoyable- and for the most part this prevents behavior problems.

2. Why did you decide to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo? (from Jalacia)

When I was a kid I went to school with kids from all over the world. (I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, USA.) From a very young age I really wanted to travel the world, and especially go to Africa.  So after I graduated from university (I studied history and education) I decided that I could combine two dreams- the first to be a teacher, and the other to see the world. So I applied for teaching positions at international schools and one of the offers I got was to teach at The American School of Kinshasa.  Congo sounded like a very challenging place, and I like challenges- so that’s why I decided to move to Congo!

3. How do you get around the town that you live in? (from Hannah)

I walk most places because I live right in the middle of town. However, if I’m going somewhere far I go by car. The roads here are pretty crazy because a few years ago a volcano erupted and the lava really ruined most of the roads. But they are working on them and doing their best to fix them.

4. What subjects do you teach? (from Jazmyn)

For the past three years I taught world history and language arts. But this year the class I work with the most is a mixed elementary school class- so now I have to teach a variety of subjects like math or health as well as reading and writing in both Swahili and French.

5. What are the challenges you face when you walk out of your front door? ( from Amari)

Amari, what an interesting question!  Because I have white skin, every time I walk down the street people say, “Mzungu, Mzungu!” This literally means- white person, white person!  And the stereotype here is that white people have a lot of money, so often people will ask me for money or food or water as I walk down the street.  There are many homeless people- both grown ups and children.  This is challenging for a lot of people that come to Congo for the first time- but I’ve been here for so long that I’m pretty used to it.

6. Are you a nice teacher? ( from Desaray)

This is a tough question.  For the most part, I think I’m a very pleasant and positive teacher. However, if students are being naughty I am very serious and strict.

7. What is the most common injury that you see in the hospital? (from Stephanie)

I’m actually not sure, so I’ll ask my friend Mary who is a nurse at the hospital and get back to you.

8. How long are you planning to stay in the DRC? (from Kylieah)

I’m not really sure. This is the beginning of my fourth year in Congo.  Since I’m working so hard now to learn Swahili and French, I think it would be really great if I could stay in Goma until June 2012, but I’m really not sure! At the very very least, I’ll be here until June 2011.

9. Is learning Swahili really hard and challenging? (from Malik)

Learning Swahili is definitely a challenge, but more than anything it’s really exciting.  Each day that goes by I am able to understand and communicate more clearly with people- which makes every day different and more and more interesting.  It’s definitely frustrating though, when I want to say something but don’t know how- but that’s all a part of the language learning process so I’m doing my best to be patient.

10. Is there a McDonald’s or a Burger King in the DRC? (from Isiah)

Nope! Most people here in Congo have never even heard of McDonalds! We do have food from different places in the world though- from Belgium, Lebanon, India… so although we don’t have much American food here- the food selection is still pretty diverse.

11. When do you plan on coming back to the United States? (from Sydney)

I’m not totally sure!  When I first moved away in 2007, I thought that it would be a good experience to work abroad for ten years or so.  Now I think maybe I’ll move back to the States sooner, but it all just depends on what happens here in Goma. If I really love teaching here I would be willing to stay a few more years.  Sometimes I do feel scared- scared that maybe I’ll stop liking the United States because I’ve been away so long.  But everytime I visit home, I still love it there.  I love both countries really- DRC and USA.

12. How do you handle teaching a class with numerous ethnic groups in that class? (from Danielle)

What a fantastic question, Danielle! I absolutely love teaching in a diverse classroom.  Sharing different perspectives is what helps to make teaching and learning extremely interesting. Here in Goma we have many refugees from Rwanda.  Then, amidst the two main nationalities (Rwandan and Congolese) there are many different tribes and ethnicities.  To be honest- I’ve only ever taught in very diverse classrooms, so what I’m not sure about is how I would deal with a homogenous classroom where everyone is the same nationality and ethnicity- I can’t imagine what THAT would be like!

13. What kind of food do you eat in the DRC? (from David G.)

A big traditional Congolese meal would include grilled chicken, fish, fu-fu, beans, rice, fried plantains and pondu. For snacks that you can easily buy on the side of the road there are grilled or boiled peanuts and hard boiled eggs.  The most popular condiment here is called pili-pili- it’s a SUPER spicy sauce. I eat Congolese food sometimes, and I also eat a lot of Lebanese food here because there are many good Lebanese restaurants with food like taouk, kafta, hommus, tabouli, and fatoushe.

14. How do you avoid or handle the violence in the DRC? (from Jha’quayshia)

A country like DRC does have a lot of violence. However, it’s important to consider that it does not happen everywhere nor does it happen all the time.  In the three and a half years I’ve been here I’ve witnessed very little violence.  I stay safe by taking precautions like not walking at night, not going places alone, not wearing lots of fancy jewelry. (Although I do love fancy jewelry, I leave it in the States and don’t even bring it with me to Congo.)

15. Have you ever heard gunshots in or near your town? (from John)

Yes, I have heard gunshots near my house a few times.  I’ve been told that usually it’s just guards shooting their guns into the air to warn robbers to stay away.

16. How many languages do you know? (from Andrew and Brandon S.)

I studied Spanish for a long time (eight years) but never became totally fluent.  (I do hope that someday I will become fluent in Spanish.) Then when I moved to Congo I started studying French a few times a week with a tutor.  As of right now I really only know English fluently- but my goal is to be fluent in Swahili by December and fluent in French by June 2011.  I think I will learn these quickly because I am totally immersed in Swahili and French all day at work- and then take lessons every afternoon. Also, many of my friends here don’t speak very much English, mostly French and Swahili, so I’m really being pressured to learn quickly!

17. How do you stay in touch with your family? (from Herman)

Facebook, email, and phonecalls! I miss them a lot, but I email my parents and my older brother every few days and I talk to them on the phone about once a month. As for my younger sisters (who are about your age) I usually just check facebook to see what’s going on with them.

18. Do you have fun teaching your students? (from William)

SO much fun!  I really love teaching. The best lessons are the ones that go by SO quickly and smoothly because we are all so engaged and interested and enjoying learning together. (Don’t get me wrong- that doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does… I really love it.)

19. Where you live, are you sometimes afraid? (from Kyeona)

Sometimes, but not very often.  Some nights I can hear people outside yelling and making lots of noise- but it’s hard to tell if they are being serious or just joking around. Most of the time it’s just people joking around.

20. Are you proud of the decision you made to move to Goma? ( from Jalyn)

I am very proud that I decided to move here.  I like it a lot and am eager to see what kinds of good things can be accomplished by working with different teachers and schools. I had opportunities to move to other places that would be much more comfortable, more safe, and with many more fun things to do… But it has always been important to me to really GO FOR IT if I know that I am willing to do something that maybe most people would not be willing to do.  Does that make sense?  I knew that I was willing to work in Goma, and willing to teach kids who don’t have very much, and willing to work with teachers who don’t have very much… so I figured that since I was willing, I should probably do it.

21. How many students do you have where you work? (from Martha)

I work in a few different places, and each one is different.  For example, at the Tungane School there is one classroom and usually we have about 15 students who range from 4 years old to 12 years old all at the same time.  At the Mugunga School there are six classrooms, each one has about 60 students with one teacher.  So there are many different environments that I work in.

22. What sports are popular in Goma? (from Brandon Ku.)

Soccer soccer and more soccer!  Basketball is also growing in popularity, but soccer is definitely the most popular.

23. Has your life ever been threatened? (from Ethan)

No, I don’t think so.  When I lived in Kinshasa I was once driving down the street and someone threw a big rock at my window and broke the window… but I just kept driving until I got to my friend’s house and we later got the window fixed.  It was scary, but I didn’t really think anyone was trying to kill me…  It could’ve happened in any big city, really.

24. Why is there so much poverty in the DRC? (from Angel)

This is a really big and complicated question, with a big and complicated answer… Hmm… I’ll do my best to keep this short!

First- it is important to consider a few key people from Congo’s history.  Have you guys learned about King Leopold? Understanding what he did to Congo will help you understand the complicated relationship between Congo and countries in Europe.  There is a good book called King Leopold’s Ghost that tells all about it. Additionally, it is important to know about Patrice Lumumba– and how he wanted to make Congo free from Belgium in the late 1950s and 1960. He is a symbol of a lot of important ideas for making Congo more independent. The last individual to definitely learn about is Mobutu.  He ruled DRC for over 30 years, and did many bad things that will also help to explain why Congo still has so much poverty.

To understand what’s happening today, there are two key factors that continue to fuel the current conflict here. First is the Rwandan genocide, and all of the complicated effects of it on this region.  I highly recommend the book An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina. I’ve had a few seventh graders read it and they really flew through it.  It’s very serious, and even scary- but it can really help you understand what happened in Rwanda in 1994.

Second, are all of the valuable natural resources in Congo.  Just like during King Leopold’s time, there are still a lot of rich people in other places of the world today, who want access to Congo’s natural resources… This is the root of a lot of the poverty here because the rich people keep getting richer from taking the resources, but the poor people here in Congo are staying poor. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a big problem.

Studying these things can help to explain why there is so much poverty all over Congo.  For Goma more specifically… in addition to all of this, the Nyiragongo volcano erupted around ten years ago, and destroyed much of the city of Goma. Can you believe that?! What luck.

25. What sort of school supplies can we send to Goma to help the students there? (Mr. Ethington)

This is a great question.  All students use pencils, pens, pencil sharpeners, small paper notebooks for each subject, and colored pencils or crayons.  Although students certainly use these, it is important to also think about economics.  Have you guys studied economics?  Well, here is a little summary of what you might consider:

Option 1: If you guys go to a store near you and purchase a lot of school supplies there- part of the money you spend at the store goes toward the owner of the store, the workers at the store and the maintenance of the building. You will be giving a wonderful donation, and also stimulating your own city’s economy.

Option 2: If you raise money, and then the school supplies are purchased here in Goma- you will not only be purchasing useful supplies but you will also be helping the local Congolese economy.  Part of the money you spend will be supporting a local Congolese shop owner, the workers at the store in Congo, and the maintenance of the store in Congo.  You will be giving a wonderful donation, and also stimulating Goma’s economy.

Please do keep in mind that this is a VERY simplified version of things! And both options involve you doing an important service- so one is not necessarily better than the other, they are just different. There are many other factors to consider in the logistics of donating things- and I really appreciate you asking!  Believe it or not, there are many times that we get sent a bunch of stuff that we really can’t use, so it is refreshing to know that you are really thinking through this.

Again, thanks for all of your questions. I hope my responses were somewhat helpful!


5 comments on “Q&A with Middle Schoolers in Alabama!

  1. Stephie
    October 7, 2010

    These were great questions and I really enjoyed reading your answers too! Here is my question: will you bring home some pili-pili for Mike? I think he would love it. Keep up the good work Sarie!
    ❤ Stephie

  2. Nick
    October 7, 2010

    This is really awesome that you have students from Alabama involved and learning about life in Congo!

    My only comment is:
    10 full years abroad!?!

  3. Beefy
    October 7, 2010

    Here is my question: What is the weirdest question one of your students has ever asked you?

  4. sararich
    October 8, 2010

    You guys are too funny. Yes, I’ll bring you and Mike some pili-pili for your wedding present! = ) As for weird questions from my students… hmm…

    As most of you all know already- I like earrings, preferably big dangly ones. The first few days I was here, the kids started telling me that they liked my earrings. One day I was wearing earrings that my mom made for me, but I didn’t know how to say “make” so I just said- these are my mom’s earrings! So now, literally every morning without fail this kid Samuel asks me, “Are those YOUR earrings? Or your MOM’S??!!” Never in million years would I have thought that every morning I would be asked whose earrings I was wearing…

  5. Mom
    October 10, 2010

    I concur with Nick’s comment…..i just didn’t say it….10 years!

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This entry was posted on October 7, 2010 by in humanities, teaching, travel.
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