This is a “Writers’ Other Jobs” post by Ryan O’Neill

Photo via Flickr/GlobalPartnership for Education

Photo via Flickr/GlobalPartnership for Education

When I was in my mid-twenties, I spent two and a half years in Rwanda, teaching English language at a rural secondary school a few kilometres outside the village of Kayonza, in Kibungo province.  The school was really just a few brick classrooms arranged around a grassy courtyard along with two huge tents, roofed with blue plastic sheeting donated by UNHCR.  There were between sixty and a hundred and ten children to a class, depending on the grade, and because the genocide and war had disrupted the education of so many, the ages of the students in a class might range between 12 and 22.  There were no textbooks, and teaching was done by chalk and talk. First you wrote some notes on the board for the students to copy into their books, and then you explained the notes to them.

I had come to Rwanda as a volunteer with the British aid agency VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) which is roughly analogous to the American Peace Corps, though with less of a political agenda.  We were the first VSO volunteers to go to Rwanda. It was five years after the genocide, and the country was hovering near the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index.  We had two weeks of language training after we arrived in Kigali, the capital.  I remember calling my mother to tell her I was safe, and she said she had just been watching a program about Rwanda on TV. ‘What did you think?’ I asked her, and she started to cry.

Kayonza, where I lived, was a shabby, dusty straggle of shops beside a petrol station where the taxibuses would stop on their way to Kigali or Kibungo.  The first place I lived in was shared with a doctor; his waiting room was separated from my living room by a thin plywood partition that didn’t quite reach the ceiling.  It had electricity, but no running water.  No water was normal. Having electricity was unusual.  Then I moved to a tiny cottage, smaller than most garages I’ve since seen in Australia, which had no running water or electricity this time. When I needed water I would take a rucksack and a 20 litre jerrycan to the well in the marketplace, and line up among the villagers, who would laugh and ask me questions to test my Kinyarwanda.  After I had filled the jerrycan I would put it in the rucksack, then strap the rucksack to my back. Once, wearing the rucksack, I slipped in the muddy marketplace and fell, helpless, on my back.  Dozens of concerned villagers helped me to my feet and I got a round of applause as I returned to the house.  It always got dark at 6 o clock (Rwanda is on the equator) and then I would sit in an armchair, with a candle perched on each arm, and read a novel, singeing the hairs on the backs of my hands whenever I forgot the candles were there.

The English curriculum I had to teach from was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and it frequently made no sense. It also focussed entirely on grammar. Being a native English speaker, and having studied English literature at uni, it was no surprise that I didn’t know the difference between a gerund and an infinitive.  Sometimes the children would ask me a question about English usage and I couldn’t explain the answer. I was ashamed to know so little about my own language, but I learned, slowly, along with the children.  I tried to make the lessons interesting, though the subject matter was so dry. The past present continuous, the subjunctive, endless prepositions.  I mimed actions, pulled silly faces, sang songs.  I still remember the bitter disappointment of seeing the final national English exam.  It featured questions about topics that weren’t on the syllabus, and there were several multiple choice questions in which the answer wasn’t any of the options given. There were rumours a rich, private school had bribed the examiners to include topics only they would know.  I felt I had failed my students.

With no television or radio, no computer or phone or internet, I read a lot of books.  Mostly they were the big nineteenth century novels, because they would last me the longest.  My parents spent a fortune posting them out from Glasgow.  It seemed fitting to read them by candlelight, though my eyes would start to ache after an hour or so, and usually I went to bed early.  Then I would lie on the thin mattress and try to think of ideas for stories. I had always wanted to be a writer. I had tried writing science fiction and horror short stories, a fantasy novel, and even scripts for comic books. I rarely finished what I started, and what I finished wasn’t very good.

One night, as I lay in bed, I thought about the time I had spent teaching English in Eastern Europe, two years before I came to Rwanda. I had heard then about another foreign teacher in a different town who had seduced and abandoned one of the girls he taught.  The girl was only fifteen years old.  I had been marking homework before I went to bed, and it was then I remembered one of the lines I had corrected in a student’s essay. “English is very beautiful for me.”  That became the first line of a short story, told from the point of view of the Lithuanian schoolgirl. That night I wrote it out longhand in a school exercise book.  The six times table was printed on the back cover of the book. I can still recall it saying that six sixes were thirty five.  The story came easily, and everything fitted into place with an effortlessness that I naively thought would be a feature of my writing life from that time on.  I didn’t know then that the worst stories can often be those that come easily, and the best stories those that come hard.  I didn’t know that I wasn’t a writer yet, or that being a writer was a claim that I would never feel comfortable making.  As the story unrolled itself before me, above all I didn’t know why, after years of trying, I had suddenly written something that was good, or that it would be years again before I wrote anything as good.  I still don’t know why. A year later, when I returned to Scotland, I submitted the story to a literary journal, and it was accepted.  ‘Rasa’ was my first published story.

Ryan O’Neill‘s short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. His collection, ‘The Weight of a Human Heart’ is published by Black Inc.

If you’d like to write a post about the strange, sad, funny or life-changing job you had to keep your writing going, read this and get in touch.


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