By Pui Ki Patricia Kwok, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge and Eugene Ndabaga, College of Education, University of Rwanda
My fieldwork was a long-awaited time to immerse myself into the ocean of fascinating ideas. Being a novice researcher exploring the implementation of “learner-centered” pedagogy, I had been anticipating the challenges ahead. Rwanda was not entirely new to me. After volunteering for a Rwandan NGO in 2015, I was hosted by their family again in 2017 while completing my master’s research on Rwanda. It was such familiarity with the culture that kept me in limbo. From sampling, accessing participants to analysis, I kept pondering if my designed plans would really work in the context?
While many described fieldwork as a lonely and isolated process, I was fortunate to receive much support by affiliating to the University of Rwanda-College of Education (UR-CE). A father-like figure, Prof. Eugene Ndabaga has been my local supervisor since my master studies.
Not long after I began doing interviews, these exchanges were typical of our phone conversations:
“Professor! Many just told me to come again tomorrow after tomorrow. Some did show up after a few hours, but they only gave 2-word answers. Maybe they don’t like me?”
“Pat, don’t worry. We will meet and discuss. Rwandans may have the knowledge or answers you look for but he or she will be hampered by the research language. Consequently, you will get insufficient responses. Keep up with the persistence and patience. Don’t get discouraged by the Rwandan attitude towards time management, appointment, and respect to informal commitment!”
As such, my local supervisor was no longer just a part of the ethical or formal procedures. In cross-cultural research, many have shared stories including dilemmas in valuing diverse knowledge systems, respecting different concepts on punctuality, locating “private” space in a communal culture, and ensuring voluntariness in participation. The contextualized advice given by a local expert was thus pacifying. It was invaluable in revealing the cultural norms, which were often misinterpreted by outsiders socialized in western research conventions.
Besides, things would never go as planned. Some days were just more chaotic than others:
“Professor help please! I got kicked out by the school. The headteacher scolded me saying I wasn’t supposed to sit with the teachers, also questioning why it took so long and… I am so sorry it is just my incompetence.”
“No my dear! These are not fair! Don’t worry, we find another school now.”
Thanks to Prof. Ndabaga’s timely support, frightening moments were all turned into hope and courage. Our relationship was also essential to address post-colonial concerns on power dynamics and positionality in research. Despite still being a mzungu (a local term for a foreigner associated with whiteness and privilege) from a traditionally elitist university, I became a reverent professor’s student. I then found it far more comfortable to regularly interact with UR-CE lecturers and key actors across the education system, many of whom were also his former students. These valuable opportunities to learn from Rwandan scholars and their works would hardly be possible without such a connection.
The most rewarding part of fieldwork was our weekly meetings to share our experiences in Rwanda. Last year across UK universities, a wide range of events and conferences were held in relation to the intellectual movement of “Decolonizing the Curriculum”. In line with post-colonial works like Edward Said’s Orientalism and Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, which inspired us to revisit the marginalized voices of “others”, concerns were on the lingering North-South divide in knowledge production, global injustice and beyond. The “African” in African Studies remains questionable. British Academy’s recent post also laments the lack of Rwandan voice in Rwanda Studies. With these in mind, our evenings were always filled with reflective sharing of our observations from schools, teacher trainings, and projects run by different consultancies. As we had different assumptions, experiences and cultural backgrounds, many doubts and surprises were highlighted. This also laid the foundation for our future collaborative works.
Meanwhile, I still struggled with understanding pedagogical practices:
“Professor why no one was discussing in the group work? Actually I wasn’t too surprised as in Chinese culture, we were afraid of giving ‘stupid’ answers…”
“Have you noted what kind of questions did they ask? Cognitive questions! Teachers enter the classroom and immediately say ‘in groups’! They have not taught anything then discuss what?”
As Prof. Ndabaga attributed various school practices to teacher training, Lortie’s (1975) concept of “apprenticeship of observation” came to my mind. It suggests that situated experience matters a lot as student teachers imitate practices of their educators. We then went to lectures at UR-CE together to visualize how teachers were taught.
“Wait wait wait help I’m going to fall off! Wow the dust! You mean this is how you go to work?!”
As Prof. Ndabaga calmly removed the dust from his jacket, I was still trying to recover from my exhaustion. I recalled many studies highlighting issues on teacher motivation and working condition that hinder any teaching efforts in developing countries. This adventure from the capital city of Kigali to a rather rural area in Eastern Province turned all my imagination into unforgettable real-life scenarios. Then we rushed into the lecture hall, where more than 400 student teachers were hectically “competing” for seats and space. When I was finally able to squeeze in, all of a sudden, I felt why teachers were complaining about the lack of experience in pre-service training in the desired pedagogy. I had even more respect for Prof. Ndabaga, whose thoughtful use of questioning and innovation had managed to improvise a contextually realistic version of “learner-centered” pedagogy.
I couldn’t be more thankful to one of the best teachers who had more faith in me than I had myself. The 9-month fieldwork had to reluctantly end there, but this journey of learning will surely continue. These heartwarming words have deeply ingrained in my heart:
“I am sorry for all the mess. It has been 3 years, and you are still willing to supervise me even when I created all these problems?”
“My dear, learning is a process, not an event! And you can learn from anybody from any angle. In fact, the knowledge I get from you students is pure, is original, is not a theory I read from a book. You learn a lot from a student who is willing to learn. So, we, will continue to learn together.”
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pui Ki Patricia Kwok is a 3rd year PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Her research looks into the implementation of “learner-centered” pedagogy in Rwanda, with a particular focus on teachers’ views and classroom practices.
Eugene Ndabaga is Associate Professor of Education in Policy and Planning, and the Director of Research and Innovation at the University of Rwanda-College of Education. He obtained his master and PhD at the University of Bath, UK, and has vast experience collaborating with international and local consultancies.