Thorp, the founding principal of Gateway High in San Francisco – one of the most highly touted public schools in the state – has accepted that same position at Gashora Girls Academy in landlocked Rwanda. This means he will leave behind his attorney wife, Donna Williamson; his three adult children; his 3-year-old sheepdog, Jake; and his top-floor flat with a roof deck in order to live in a shared house and spend a minimum of three years swatting at mosquitoes.
“Rwanda is not without its challenges,” he says while stroking Jake in a living room that is sunny and easy and will probably seem sunnier and easier with each passing day until his departure. “There is the risk that at some point during this stint I will get malaria.”
I let out a wee guffaw at that last sentence. Yes, there is “the risk” of getting malaria–it’s even higher than the States(!)–but that doesn’t get you far. This region sees more lightening than anywhere else in the world; why not mention that shocking elevated risk instead? Truth is, your chances of getting malaria in Rwanda are small even if you don’t take medication (like most other expats I know and me), and if you are popping pills (as I’m sure Principal Thorp will), then it’s just silly to mention.
But I’m missing the storm for the clouds, aren’t I? The crux of his comment is not about the risk of malaria, it’s about the general hardship he will have to suffer for his cause. One fights the urge to weep looking over what he will be giving up:
- Attorney wife Donna Williamson
- Three adult children
- Jake, the 3-year-old sheepdog
- Top-floor flat with a roof deck
- Sunny and easy living room that will seem sunnier and easier with each passing day
- Sympathetic journalists
Ok, so leaving your family isn’t trivial, but would this be the chosen framing if his departure were for Belgium? As much as I hate to betray my own winsome exoticism, the expatriate life in Rwanda is not often equivalent to a perpetual safari. If you’re in Kigali, as Principal Thorp will be for at least part of his stay, you’ll be in a house, not a hut, and if you cook over a fire it will be because most ranges here are fueled with gas.
Gérard Prunier, an Africa scholar, has described Rwanda as being the “darling of foreigners” because the “blacks were polite and everything was clean.” In the same book, he later described it as “virtuous, Christian, respectable, and boring.” If Rwanda presents challenges for the expat, it more likely has to do with these than malaria or lightening strikes alike.