Nope – that’s not evidence of my badassness requiring bail out of a Rwandan prison, it’s actually the receipt that I have to bring with me when I start French Lessons at 9am tomorrow (yep – that’s Saturday morning).
After almost 3 months of pretending to understand French by smiling my way through conversations, every once in a while saying “ahh oui oui je sais,” I decided that, concretely, one of the best things I could do for myself in Rwanda would be to actually learn French. It would perhaps be the most transferable skill I could bring to another job (or at least that I could use to insist that another job let me travel).
So, yesterday morning, I jumped in the car with our logistics coordinator and went to go sign up for my French lessons… at the Ruhengeri Prison. Even though I’ve already written a blog about this, let me quickly reiterate the fact: prisoners in Rwanda are FRIGHTENLY unmonitored. You would never actually call the prison a prison, by any standard of the word. Our compound of a house if more secure than the prison: we have barbed wire, we have a guard, we have a gate that closes AND locks. The prison had…kind of a wall that separated the inside from the outside, but no physical gate…and one guard who sheepishly asked me if I had a cell phone on me. When I said no, he didn’t question any further.
When we drove up, a group of prisoners was hanging out in the parking lot, outside of the non-gated entrance and out of “reach” of the one guard.
While my first reaction was awe, I was quickly brought back to reality when Elie said hello to one and shook his hand. I followed suit. And then, the shock hit. I could not stop myself from thinking “you’ve killed somebody – maybe a whole family – with a machete. And now I’m shaking your hand.” Shake hands with the devil much?
Elie navigated his way through the prison, to the “classroom” building, where a group of men who were once professors, teachers, doctors gathered. The one who appeared to know English best (fluently) spoke to me: (Apologies to those of you that don’t know French, but this conversation is hilarious if you do.)
Him: Que langue est-ce que vous voulez apprendre? (What language do you want to learn?)
Me: *desperate glances at Elie to no relief* Umm…le francais? Je pense? You just asked me what language I want to learn…right?
Him: Ahh d’accord. Et en que jours est-ce que vous avez les temps pour apprendent? (Okay. And on what days are you free for learning?)
Me: Trois ans. (Three years. – I assumed he asked me for how long I studied French.)
Elie laughed and told me what he said.
Me: Ah…toutes les jours?
Him: Je vous donnez un examen. Qu’est-ce que vous avez fait hier? (I will give you a quiz. What did you do yesterday?)
Me: Hier? Umm…j’ai allé a la centre de santé…de Shingiro…pas la centre de santé de Kabere ou de Muhoza…y…et…j’ai teach Anglais a les…gens…people…et… (Yesterday? [I only said this to check if it sounded like “yesterday”…and to stall while I remembered how to construct past tense verbs…to those of you who know French…I obviously failed.] I went [using a 5 year old’s verb construction] to the health center…of Shingiro…not the Kabere health center, or the Muhoza one [blatantly trying to speak for longer by using English words in a French way]…[Spanish] and…and I taught English at the people…people [English…just in case he didn’t understand me] …and …
He finally stopped me there.
Him: Consolate (girl I live with) is much better than you are.
Me: Well yeah. She’s from Rwanda and she studied French in college.
Him: You can only join her class if you take personal catch-up lessons.
Me (to self): You mean come to the prison of genocidaires by myself without a phone to call anybody in case something happens? Fabulous. Can’t wait. This better pay off and some job someday better send me to France.