The Bottomless Cup

Month: May, 2010

Project Rwanda 4: The Teaching Experience

I met Darbi Roberts (The Student Development Coordinate at CMU-Qatar) today  to tell her all about the trip, and I realized that there was so much to talk about. I therefore decided to document my teaching experience, for myself and for others interested in getting involved with OLPC.

Shedding Inhibitions:

Josh told us that the students were going to be a bit shy, but they turned out to be more responsive than expected. Nevertheless, Ice breakers were important to get the students comfortable with us and show them that we’re their friends rather than their teachers. Our team  played ‘Simon Says’, but since the students and our translator had trouble saying ‘Simon", we changed the game to ‘Sam Says’.  This is just one of the many ways we adapting our activities to suit the students.


Some things are better left untouched…

We realized was that the kids knew so much more than they showed. I remember in the beginning we asked the translator to ask them simple questions like "What just happened in the skit?" and no one would answer. We were initially disappointed because we would get blank, scared faces. However, our translator came up with the idea of pointing to a student and asking him/her to answer the question. This was something that we were initially not comfortable with, but it worked. Perhaps the "modern" solution of not singling a student out isn’t universally the best. We all made it to a point to realize that the school had opened it doors not to change their teaching methods, but to enhance them. This involved us being sensitive to the traditions of teaching followed by the school.


I remember how I overslept for one of the lesson planning and Ariel, who was the only one up on time, ended up whipping a plan from the top of hear head. What was funny was that the lack of confidence we had in our not-so-planned lesson plan became our strength. We were more open to modifying what we wanted to do in those 50 minute slots according to what we deemed necessary. For example, the ice breakers, which was initially just one round of making expressions without sounds, was changed to a two round ice breaker where the second round involved everyone performing the same actions as the selected student. This exercise not only gave the students confidence when they were doing silly actions, but also created a more trusting environment.


One aspect that I really appreciate about the OLPC applications is that they are very open-ended in nature. This means that they leave large room for creativity, making them interesting for students and instructors alike. For instance, our record program was just a webcam application that allowed taking pictures and videos. However, our team managed to make it an extremely educative experience for the children, as they were challenged in many dimensions. They were taught the concepts of teamwork, creativity, structure, and perhaps even critical thinking. Teamwork, Creativity and Structure were taught through the skits where the students worked in groups of 2 and 3 and were asked to perform a skit. Furthermore, they were also asked to make masks for their jungle skits.

However, the most interesting aspect that we aimed to teach them was critical thinking. We asked these students to explain why we did "actions without words" and through that, taught them the importance of nonverbal communication and body language and how they transcend the language barriers that we faced.

Lastly, we taught them how to create. These students created their own movies, something that they could give credit to themselves. This is probably their first "creation" and will hopefully encourage them to be enterprising in the future.

Giving them a start…

It was important for us to give the students some scenarios instead of giving them nothing at all. It was their first experience with creating and acting out skits, so giving them complete freedom would have made them completely lost. Therefore, we gave them a template, and then asked them to do whatever they wanted with the stories. The way the changed the stories was mind boggling, and we all realized that they had a knack for comedy! Some of them performed something completely different from the scenarios given, but that was fine as long as they had fun!



We really hope our efforts become sustainable. However, with the lack of internet at the school, this seems challenging. One thing that I wished we had done was to make the teachers sit in our classes, so that they can learn about laptop integration in the classrooms.


I speak on behalf of the entire team that we all gained appreciation for the primary school teachers, who work effortlessly and are often underappreciated. Our four days of teaching were so exhausting that we would’ve barely been able to do one more day. This is after being fortunate enough to have extremely disciplined students who gave us very little to complain about.


Project Rwanda 3: A Transit full of Surprises

Thanks to the surprisingly impressive wireless service provided by the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I’m reporting from Nairobi (at least that is where i started writing this blog). This was supposed to be an insignificant transit destination, but it turned out to be an adventure of sorts.


Just a reminder; I am on my way to Rwanda for the OLPC project (see my previous blog post). Since Qatar Airways does not fly to Rwanda, I am taking Kenya Airways from Nairobi to Kigali. The Nairobi Airport is very homely, clean and high tech (WiFi and the “tunnels” to take you from the plane to the airport). After having my luggage issues resolved, Abhay and I proceeded to the “Transit Lounge” and decided to experiment with the XO (the OLPC Laptop) while we waited for the next flight which was in 10 hours. After an hour, we decided to roam around the airport when we had the crazy idea to leave the airport and explore Nairobi. The visa for 12 hours was just 10 dollars, so we headed towards immigration to get out of the airport. Abhay was allowed a “visa on arrival” but they told me that Pakistanis cannot do so. After I begged them, they sent me to this other person who sent me to another person. When I asked him about the visa, he asked for my nationality and I told him I am Pakistani. He stared me right in the eye with an angry face and started saying “Paki Paki Paki!” and then took off in Swahili. After that he just stared at me and said “Khan?” and I responded with a yes, but fortunately he signed my visa and we were out of the airport in no time.clip_image002

My Tanzanian friend warned me about the locals trying to rip “tourists”  off, and so after several minutes of bargaining we managed to find someone who would show me and Abhay a bit around Nairobi, take us for dinner and then bring us back to the Airport on time for only $30.  The two surprising aspects of Nairobi are that 1.) it is very green, despite being very urban (mainly because of the National Park that is huge and beautiful. You can even see giraffes in the park from the street) and 2.) that it is so developed. I’m not the kind of person who stereotypes african cities to be underdeveloped, but the fact that it had so many high rise buildings came as a surprise to me. clip_image003

We learnt a lot about the Kenyans through our driver, Peter, who was extremely friendly and very well spoken. As soon as I got into the car, I practiced my swahili skills with Peter (“Mimi Chappa Wewe – thanks Fati!, mshenzi, mambo, jambo, mambo jambo, hebu nyamaza). Peter kept mentioning how Indians rule the country and own all the expensive hotels, . I took the opportunity to ask him about his opinions of the Indians being so rich and powerful. After giving a smile, and me reassuring him that I won’t mind, he said “They are selfish. They are just here for the money. and they don’t let the natives to go up”. He then went on talking about how the Indians do not like to mix with the locals, and have their own schools. He mentioned that the Aga Khan school was the only school in Nairobi where there is a mix, and that is where his nephews study. The country’s experience with clip_image004the Indians led him to be suspicious of the chinese, who are building a bridge for Nairobi free of cost, and Peter believed  it was their first step to “take over” the country and exploit its resources.

I can’t finish my blog without talking about the Football fever in Kenya. It is insane. Josh very aptly said that they do not believe that the World Cup is happening in South Africa, but is instead it is happening in the entire African continent. From billboards to radio shows (“The Time is Ours” says the Radio host), all i hear is football. I think football brings a smile on every east African, young and old alike. I can go on and on about Nairobi, as it has definitely become one of my favorite cities in the world, but I’ve got to stop here and go have dinner. Jimmy told us that he is going to show us around on our way back from Kigali. lets hope that works out.clip_image005

When we arrived back at the airport, we finally got to meet the students from Pittsburgh, live. They were very enthusiastic and friendly, and I think i speak on behalf of everyone that they made sure that we weren’t left out. Our flight to Kigali was very pleasant, and i used Amy’s Lonely Planet guide on East Africa to get acquainted with Rwanda, its sites and especially its history. I can easily say that my view about global politics and perhaps even the human psyche has changed after reading about this very tragic genocide that devastated Rwanda as still leaves a scar on the minds of its people.

Project Rwanda 2: Take Off

The time is finally here. I’m finishing my packing and leaving for Rwanda in a couple of hours. I was scared this morning about what the trip is going to be like for a person who is not outdoorsy, but right now I am actually excited. Yet the uncertainty about the whole trip is making me over pack. I’ve just packed a huge duffel bag full of clothes – long sleeves, half sleeves, shorts, jeans, sweatshirts, blankets, bed linens – i think I’ve got all possible climates covered.

Going back to my panic attacks in the morning, I’m glad I had my friends to calm my nerves. From Anam saying that she would have been excited if she were me, Munjid reminding me of the cause, and Yahya telling me that it is just 10 days if things don’t turned out as planned, their pep talk has really worked. I’m really going to miss all of them in these 10 days.

About blogging in Rwanda, I’ve made the last minute decision to take my laptop with me. Even though I probably have the least portable laptop that exists (heavy and zero battery life), I think I’ll manage to write at least one post in Rwanda. I’m not sure how the power and internet situation is there.

Before ending this post, I just wanted to add that I can’t thank Hiba enough for the amazing artwork for my banner. It really does look awesome, and i like her eye for detail. By that i mean the hairy arms and the bushy eyebrows! You guys should check out her other great work at

Writer’s Block, Introversion & Discomfort Zone

I’ve been suffering from a writer’s block ever since I’ve got done with classes. Last Night, I was trying to figure out what to write about till dawn. Many people claim that there is no such thing as a writer’s block, but I think that that is just a defense mechanism against this very phenomenon. As I searched the internet over how to overcome writer’s block, one of the common cures was a change of environment. And so I clip_image002am here, sitting in Café Vergnano at the pearl, facing the sea and the boats to get my inspiration back (view on the right). Yet I am still sitting here waiting for that burst of inspiration.

The idea about writer’s block had made me think a lot about what moving out of one’s comfort zone means. The past year has made me move out of my comfort zone in so many ways, and despite it being extremely hard, it has been very fruitful. I moved into a new university, changed my career options and moved out of the what to expect.

There were times when I felt like I was falling through the cracks, and there was nothing familiar for me to hold on to. The only constant were my Cornell friends, whose support and advice was invaluable to me. The fact that I was an introvert didn’t help either.

I was doing a career test with Jumana (my counselor) and she was telling me what being an introvert entails. Introverts have no relation to shyness. It’s a matter of where one gets one’s energy from. For extroverts, it is people and for introverts, its their “down time”, that couple of hours of solitude. Therefore, if I am meeting unfamiliar people throughout the day and don’t get that down time, I get so exhausted and stressed. I remember how people thought I had a secret girlfriend that I call because I would stop hanging out with the rest of the group after getting back to the hotel at night during Pittsburgh.

Why then, would I feel the need to get out of my comfort zone? Because despite the anxiety, the satisfaction I get after I face my fears gives me a high. I never want any of my fears to hold me back. My future holds many such challenges, and so I’m planning ahead. As i go to Rwanda, my friend Fatima’s word come to my mind – “Be yourself. Everyone will have a lot of fun around the funny you.” I hope that is the case.

I still didn’t get the inspiration I was looking for. I guess I’ll just post this.

Recipe for Happiness 4: Friendship

Like any child, I’ve been instilled with values that my parents have learnt throughout their lives. In fact, I think I take their idea of right and wrong as my guide for life. However, over time, as I have faced my own life lessons, I have been able to challenge what they have taught me. My father used to tell me that friends are not important, as they come and go. This, having resonated in my mind since I could remember, has made me into a person who does not open up to people that easily. To the contrary, I used to take pride in the idea that I do not need to make friends, as needing friends was a sign of clip_image002weakness. I think this idea spreads across upbringing in the south Asian culture, and hence could be a possible explanation of the lack of social and the abundance of academic skills that we possess.

Don’t get me wrong, I was in no way a loner. I just didn’t think friends were an important part of my life. This idea got me into a great deal of psychological mess as I came to live alone here in Qatar. I realized that the only way for me to survive is to have trustworthy friends. After a very long time, as I made friends, I realized the joy that friendship can bring. The meaning of friendship changed for me.

I therefore wish to explore in this post the basic need for friendship and affiliation, and how it relates to happiness. Of course I need to do some research as I really hesitate in giving any opinion without scientific evidence to prove my point.

Happiness is infectious. It should come as no surprise as we watch movies and also real life events where we see other people’s happiness and we get a smile on our faces. However, the effects of such happiness are underestimated to say the least. Research done at the University of California, San Diego has significant evidence to prove that happiness is contagious for up to three degrees of separation, as there is a chain reaction that starts off when one person is happy. What’s even more surprising is that this happiness affects people for a year. And guess what? Its not the other way around – sadness isn’t contagious. This enough should be evidence that friendship results in happiness (of course I am talking clip_image004about it in terms of the bigger picture).

An even more interesting research was done in the UK (Warwick University) where it has been found that the amount of extra income one would need to compensate for the lack of friends (and still be equally happy) is £50,000.

I don’t remember the source, but I watched this podcast on positive psychology  and the psychologist was talking about how social interaction can reduce our depression over an issue. I think this is important because we tend to shut ourselves out whenever we hear bad news, as that is the easiest thing to do. I encourage everyone to force oneself to socialize even more during a hard time, as I myself have seen its positive effect. It wasn’t long ago when I would just sit at home and “sleep out” a bad day, only to wake up and feel worse.

I think adding Aristotle’s idea of happiness is appropriate here, because it has been something that has been stuck in my head ever since I’ve heard it. He believed that happiness is achieved through, what he called, “practical virtue” which he refers to as the best kind of happiness. This is based on friendliness, truthfulness, ready wit, lack of shame, balance of ambition and control of anger. All these are virtues of a good friend.

If this kind of happiness cannot be achieved for whatever reason, one should attempt for intellectual happiness.  (see my previous happiness post on Creative Happiness and the idea of “flow”.)

I remain an introvert, and I need my own private space every day. But that in no way means that my friends are any less valuable to me.