This post is part three of a series of student experiences in Rwanda from this summer. Here, Indiana University student Caitlin Ryan writes about her trip. Read more student perspectives here.
It’s officially the first day of our trip to Rwanda this year and I am ready to get going! We’ve got a long day of traveling ahead of us from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Kigali, Rwanda.
This year I am traveling alongside three other Indiana University students: Jeff Wise, Chelsea Skovran, and Madelyn Kissel. Also accompanying us on this trip are GV Assistant Director Lauren Caldarera, TEAM Schools teacher Ali Nagle, and two TEAM Schools students—Jordyn Marlin and Kiara Pettiway. It should be a great group!
We arrived in Kigali this morning and were greeted by our dear friends Simon Peter and Abdoul at the airport. As soon as I came out of the arrivals gate, they ran up to me and gave me a hug, welcoming me back to Rwanda. It was wonderful to see them again. After loading our luggage into the bus and picking up our boxes of books, we headed to our first stop in the capital—the Kigali Memorial Center.
The Kigali Memorial Center is also known as the Gisozi Genocide Memorial, and museum exhibits here cover not only the genocide in Rwanda but also genocides that have happened all over the world. It is very well organized and extremely moving. I remember visiting it during my first trip to Rwanda in 2009 and crying after walking through the exhibits. Visiting the museum a second time was a good experience as I was able to take in the exhibits and notice different things that I had overlooked the first time. In particular, this time, I was struck by the quotations that were featured in many different parts of the center.
At the beginning of the museum tour, there is a large quotation:
“This is about our past and our future;
Our nightmares and dreams;
Our fear and our hope;
Which is why we begin where we end…
With the country we love…”
The Memorial Center is entirely maintained by donations; they do not charge a fee for entrance. This time I decided to support the museum by purchasing one of their booklets about the genocide. It was very well put together and informative.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. We ran errands in the city and checked into our hotel, Chez Lando, for some much needed rest.
Today was our first big day in Rwanda. We had breakfast at Chez Lando and dropped off a copy of The World is Our Home Volume III at the Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Office in Kigali before heading to Kinigi, home of Kabwende Primary School. As we drove from the capital city out into the rural
areas of Rwanda, my feeling that I was coming home to something only grew stronger as I remembered the mountains and the hills of the Northern Province and saw the familiar sights of children carrying Gerry cans, women carrying baskets of bananas on their heads, and men talking in groups in the city centers.
Of course, I can’t say that Rwanda is my home. It is only my second time here and my first visit was rather short. However, being here a second time and being here with the group makes it feel like the project is becoming more and more established. The cycles of story writing and cultural exchange that we first envisioned in 2008 are really happening, and there is strong group of people working together here in Rwanda on the project as well, which is really exciting to see. There’s really a Books & Beyond family in Indiana, New Jersey, and Rwanda.
Once we arrived at the Kinigi Guesthouse and settled in, we headed over to Kabwende for the opening ceremony that they had planned for us. As we began walking up the dirt path to the school, we could hear the sounds of excited children’s voices and soon we could see them. There were hundreds of children running from the school down the path to greet us as we walked to the school and walk alongside us, curious about who we were, where we had come from, and why we were there. Of course, most of them must have known already why we were there, but it was a good chance for them to show that they had been practicing their English.
During the welcoming ceremony at Kabwende, Clement and his assistant, Theogen, gave speeches in English. This was really remarkable because the first time we visited, we could not even speak with Clement without a translator. Clement and his teachers have been working very hard to improve their school and their English skills. Since this is one of the main things that we support with our project, it was very encouraging to see. I wish I could say that my Kinyarwanda skills were comparable! I had better work harder on that…
For the rest of the ceremony, Kabwende’s dance troupe performed a few dances for us and even got Kiara and Jordyn to get up and dance along! Then, a group of boys did some acrobatics. Finally, the teachers introduced themselves and we took a large group picture.
I’m adding in a video below of one of the songs/dances that the students performed for us during the ceremony for you to enjoy:
This morning we woke up early and walked over to Kabwende to deliver the books to the school. Just like last time, we did the book delivering in two shifts—morning and afternoon—to ensure that every child got a book. We split up into smaller groups of two or three and each group would go to a classroom, introduce themselves, and hand out the books to the students.
In between the morning and afternoon classes, I had some time to sit down and talk with Simon Peter and Isaac at the guesthouse. Both men have been a wonderful help to our project over the past few years. Each time we visit, they accompany us to the school and help to translate between English and Kinyarwanda when necessary. I really enjoyed spending time with them and getting to discuss the project and their thoughts on it. Simon Peter and Isaac each had great perspectives about how the project is impacting Kabwende and things that we could do better in the future.
After delivering books to the afternoon classes, Kiara and Jordyn led a small writing workshop with students from Kabwende to begin brainstorming ideas for their stories. The next book will be centered around the theme “Hopes and Dreams.” The Kabwende teachers selected 30 students from grades P5 and 6 to write stories. After reading their stories, the best 15 stories will be chosen for the book.
When the work at the school was done for the day, we headed to Clement’s home to visit with his family. We got to meet his wife and his children and spend some time sitting in the living room chatting with Clement and his family.
Finally, we finished our day at Volcana, a restaurant in town where we ate pizza (yum!) and reflected on the day.
When I sat down to reflect on the day, I realized that it really flew by. In fact, the trip seems to be flying by! I feel like I have been making stronger connections with our partners here in Rwanda, including Simon Peter, Isaac, Abdoul, and the teachers at Kabwende, which has been really cool. I’ve been able to have more conversations than ever before, and have learned a lot by listening and taking things in. I feel like this time I’ve really been building relationships as opposed to just observing everything like I did the first time.
One of my highlights from the day was getting to tape a student reading her story from the last book. She was one of the few authors around that still attends Kabwende and she bravely read her story aloud for me so I could videotape it. Very cool.
I also had a big moment of reflection today while watching Kiara and Jordyn do the writing workshop. It was awesome to see the young girls take a leadership role and put on a workshop, but at the same time, it also made me realize how huge the disparity is between the education that a child in Rwanda gets and the education that a child in the US gets.
While Kiara and Jordyn talked about brainstorming as a concept for beginning story writing, the teachers watched curiously. They had never heard of a concept like this before and were excited to learn something new that they might use in their classes.
Watching this unfold and taking into account all of the things I had seen and learned in the past three years, it just hit me how a child’s education is so much more than what we think of on the surface. While getting a child to school and providing resources for that child to learn are big steps, there is so much more that goes into ensuring the quality of that education… It seems daunting and made me really stop and wonder if it is possible to expect that children in such a situation could achieve or perform at the high standards that the western world expects.
Of course, this kind of thinking can be dangerous, and I grounded myself in the observation of how much improvement we had seen at the school in just three years. I don’t think that Books & Beyond, or any project for that matter, can completely conquer the obstacles that children worldwide face in getting a quality education. But we can help to make it better, and that is something worth working for. With continued improvement, hard work, and staying focused on the big picture, I think that our project and many other non-profits can really make a big difference in people’s lives. It’s true—you can’t fix everything—but at the very least you can try to help, and maybe have some fun along the way.
Today was a very different kind of day. The group began by making a visit to Prefer preschool, run by Cathy Emerson. I stayed at the guesthouse to do some documenting work and joined the group for lunch when they got back. For lunch we had a lesson on chapati making with Rafiki, our friend from the kitchen of the Kinigi Guesthouse. I taped the lesson using the Flip video camera and Chelsea wrote down the recipe, so I could post a fun cooking video for everyone:
After our chapati lesson with Rafiki we headed over to the school for an interesting afternoon. Madelyn and Chelsea led computer training workshops for teachers while I had the opportunity to do a few personal interviews with teachers. Isaac helped me to translate a bit for the more difficult questions, and we both got a lot out of the experience. I loved hearing about the teachers’ lives and thoughts. Doing personal interviews is definitely one of my favorite parts of documenting for the project. I just love hearing people’s stories!
Later we held conversation circles with the teachers so that they could have a chance to practice their English with native speakers. We split into small groups with a couple of us in each group and talked about anything and everything from tricky English words to the geographic features of Rwanda. I had a lot of fun just hanging out with the teachers and talking. Like I said earlier in my blog, I really feel like I am becoming closer to our friends here this time, building real relationships and friendships. It’s awesome.
As the conversation circles came to an end, we turned our attention to Ali and Lauren, who led a brief workshop over the new curriculum for the third volume of The World is Our Home, including the hierarchy of questions (see image). Each conversation circle then chose a story to read together and discuss, following the suggested questions in the curriculum. Our group chose the story “A Friend for Yve,” about a new student who has some trouble making friends at her new school.
Our day ended with visits to two teachers’ houses. As a part of our trip this year, the teachers requested that we be able to visit some of their homes to meet their families. We had already visited Clement’s home, so today we visited the homes of John Bizimana and Emmanuel Niyonzima. Both homes were absolutely wonderful. We were graciously accepted into their houses and got to learn more about their lives and their families. Each place we were served plentiful amounts of Fanta and fruit and we enjoyed some time to chat and get to know one another better. I found the whole experience to be extremely humbling. Each person we have visited so far has invited us into his home so kindly and given us so much as their guest. Of course we don’t need the sodas and the fruit, but they insisted on feeding us as their honored guests. We are truly blessed to work with such kind people here in Rwanda. It just makes me wish I could do more!
As I sat in John Bizimana’s living room, I found myself imagining what it must be like to be him. I imagined how my life would be if I had grown up in Rwanda or if I were a teacher at Kabwende. In a way, by inviting us into their homes, they really invited us into their lives, to have a look at what it is like to be in their shoes. And I am extremely grateful for that experience.
At the end of the day we had dinner at the Kinigi Guesthouse and reflected on our experiences once again. I realized that I had learned a lot just from the conversations I had been having, especially when we did the conversation circles. Isaac told me that in Rwanda there is a saying that if a visitor comes with rain then he is blessed, and that we must be very blessed because it’s been raining every day since we arrived! I thought that was really interesting, and a more positive take on the rain, which many of us have been thinking was a bummer since it is the dry season and we were hoping for more sunshine!
Overall, today for me was filled with genuine happiness, excitement to learn, and a real feeling of a collaborative commitment to improvement through education. Although going through the curriculum at times can be discouraging because of how difficult it can be for the teachers, it is also very encouraging to see how many questions they have and how eager they are to try the new methods and learn new things. I continue to be amazed by the teachers of Kabwende. They are truly wonderful people.
It’s going to be so strange to go home after this.
Today was our last day working at Kabwende and it was awesome! I began my day by doing some prep work for documenting while part of the group went to visit our friend Alphonse at the park office.
Later in the morning we visited Kapanga School, a neighboring secondary school, where we met with Peace Corps Volunteer Stephanie Mulhern to learn about her experience working there and to see how some other schools in Rwanda are running. First we visited her classroom and answered questions that her students had prepared for us. We also ran into a few of the authors from The World is Our Home Volume III which was really cool! They’ve moved up from Kabwende to Kapanga and were very excited to see us again. We also spent some time in the teacher’s lounge, where we got to ask Kapanga’s headmaster and their teachers about the current P9 education system in Rwanda and how they are dealing with all of the changes that have come up in the past few years. It was very informative. Finally, Stephanie gave us some insight into what her experience has been like as a Peace Corps Volunteer, which was really good for those of us (IU students) who might consider doing Peace Corps in the future.
When we returned to the guesthouse, I took advantage of the free time we had to do a couple of personal interviews with Simon Peter and Isaac before heading over to the school to work with the P5 and P6 students on their stories. While the students worked on illustrating their stories, Isaac helped me to do short interviews with each of the authors in the corner of the classroom. I asked them questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What do you like to do for fun?” I enjoyed this since it was the first time I have ever really been able to individually interview students at Kabwende. Meanwhile, a few of our students hosted a conversation circle in an adjacent classroom with a group of P5 and P6 students that had expressed a desire to work on their English. It was a very busy afternoon!
As the afternoon’s activities wound down, I began setting up for the Community Dialogue, something that I had been working on for a few months leading up to the trip. When Ellie, Ross and I attended CGI U in April, we made a commitment to action to improve the Rwandan side of the project, strengthening the reciprocity of it and hopefully providing more opportunities for students to learn. We originally intended to establish a strong mentoring program with students from a secondary school coming to Kabwende, but this wasn’t well received during the 2010 visit to Kabwende so we decided to take a step back and try to be a little more culturally sensitive in our efforts to improve the project. I really believe in the value of this as I think it is vital to include input from all of the project’s stakeholders when considering major changes. Thus, we came up with the Community Dialogue.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I worked with Clement and Simon Peter to organize the logistics of the dialogue so that everything would run smoothly. We invited teachers from Kabwende, parents from the community, and students from P5 and P6 to the dialogue. I began by thanking everyone for coming and divided the participants into smaller groups with at least one of each representative in each group (i.e. each group had at least one teacher, one parent, and one student). I explained the importance of having a diversity of opinions and that we were very interested in what Kabwende thought about the project and its future. I distributed this handout and gave a short presentation about the project, its goals, and how it looks from each side (i.e. IU, TEAM, and Kabwende). Simon Peter helped me by translating my presentation into Kinyarwanda so that everyone would be able to understand completely.
After the presentation I posed the main question of the dialogue: How can Kabwende students and teachers be more involved in each of the three project goals? Within their small groups, I asked everyone to discuss and come up with what they thought were the best two ideas they had to answer the question. After about 15-20 mins of small group discussion, I invited each group to write their best two ideas on the chalkboard so that we could share them as a large group. A few of the groups sent their student representative up to write the ideas on the board which I thought was really cool to see. Students from Kabwende are beginning to take more leadership roles in the project!
The ideas they shared were very interesting and provided a lot of insight into their thoughts about the project. As a large group, we shared the ideas and then I asked if we could vote on the best two ideas of the day. By a majority vote, the group decided on two main ideas that were important for Kabwende and the future of the project:
- Kabwende students and teachers should have the opportunity to visit the US, just as US students and teachers get to visit Rwanda.
- Kabwende students could organize and make some small crafts that could be sold to raise money for the project.
Other ideas that the group ranked as important were:
- Kabwende needs more materials for learning (i.e. book, laptops, etc.).
- Kabwende students and teachers could start an English club to provide an opportunity for more practice and improvement in their language skills.
At the end, I thanked everyone for coming and stressed the importance of everyone working together to make these ideas a reality. I believe our project will continue be successful if each stakeholder continues to work hard towards these common goals, supporting and encouraging one another. Clement then brought in a few cases of soda for everyone to share in celebration of the dialogue and the end of our time at Kabwende. The overall feeling of the room was that of excitement for the future. I was really pleased with how the dialogue went and excited to see real community organizing in work. It’s one thing to study something like this in class or even talk about it among colleagues, but to really see community organizing and democracy in action—wow! I may have found one of my true passions…
We finished by saying farewell to our friends at the school and walking back to the guesthouse to board the bus for dinner in Musanze.
Today was a pretty slow day in comparison to yesterday’s action-packed schedule. We went to Lake Kivu in the morning and spent some time relaxing by the lake at a hotel in Gisenyi. It was really beautiful, and the sunshine was nice. Several of us took pictures and enjoyed exploring on the rocks by the lake. We even found a few lizards!In the afternoon we drove back to Kinigi and visited one more teacher’s home—Onesphore Bagirishya. We got to meet his parents, grandmother, wife, and children! Quite the family. He also showed us the bike that he had, which was donated to him as a part of an initiative by Books & Beyond in its second year.
In the evening we returned to Volcana, home of delicious pizza, for dinner and a meeting with Jan Rammer, an Indianapolis-based veterinarian, who has been working in Rwanda with the gorillas for a while. Meeting Jan was really cool, and I think it helped to give all of us a different perspective on the issue of gorillas and tourism in Rwanda. She talked about how the tourism set up here is really good for the gorillas because it’s provided a way to protect them from poaching while also generating conservation awareness and providing income for the country. I found this perspective to be very interesting, especially because people question that all the time.
This evening also provided for one of the more interesting versions of our reflection activities. We were each asked to draw a picture of our experiences thus far and then had to share it with the group. It reminded me of the many “participatory evaluation” activities that we did this year in the US with the project and I laughed a little at first, but I really enjoyed the process.
Today was mainly spent in transit. We traveled from Kinigi to Kigali, ran errands in the city, and spent the rest of the evening at Chez Lando. I spent the time doing interviews with the students in our group and catching up on documenting work. We also did another interesting reflection activity at dinner. This time, we had to write a poem about our experience in Rwanda. I found these to be pretty interesting as well, so I collected the poems and typed up a few to share. You can view them here.
It’s the beginning of the second week of our trip, and it already feels weird to not be at Kabwende. I miss our friends already! We woke up early this morning to drive from Kigali to Nyungwe National Forest. We stopped on one end of the park to get out and do the Canopy Walk before heading on to our final destination—the guesthouse at Gisakura.
The Canopy Walk was relatively new, and hadn’t been available last time I visited Rwanda, so I was pretty excited to see the forest from a different trail. We had a great guide who led us down into the rainforest and to the breathtaking canopy walk high in the trees. It reminded me a lot of the walk at Kakum National Forest in Ghana, but the materials that they had built it with were different. It seemed much more industrial than Ghana’s walk…but very cool nonetheless. I loved walking across the bridge and seeing the forest from high up. I’m posting some pictures and video to go with it, but really nothing can compare to the real experience.
Finally, we checked into the Gisakura guesthouse, the same place that we stayed last time I was in Rwanda, and the rain began. I guess when they say it’s a rainforest they really mean it…(bad pun, sorry).
This morning I woke up feeling pretty sick so I stayed at the guesthouse while most of the group headed out for a hike on the waterfall trail. They returned in the rain but said that the hike was wonderful. Since I stayed in, I spent the time reflecting on the trip so far and the experience of being in Rwanda.
I thought of how a lot of times at home when I mention Rwanda, people immediately think of the genocide and assume that working there must be very dangerous and difficult. I thought of how strange this seems to me now, after having been to Rwanda twice, and how I could try to bridge this gap in understanding when I return home. I want to be able to show people that yes, the genocide happened, but that’s really a part of this nation’s past. They’ve come so far in the past decade. The Rwanda of today and the Rwanda of the past are two very different things. The Rwanda of today and (I think) the Rwanda of the future is a strong nation, built on the shoulders of hard-working, resilient people who are dedicated to make a better life for themselves and the future. If you talk to the average Rwandan person, he’s not going to jump right into talking about the genocide. He’ll tell you about his life, his family, and his hopes and dreams for the future—just like any other person in the world. It reminds me a lot of what Bill Clinton said at CGI U this year, “People need for you to give them the support they need to stand on their own two feet and take control of their own destinies. That’s all anyone wants.”
I hope that through Books & Beyond, and perhaps partnering with other organizations, Rwanda will continue to be supported as it works towards a bright future.
I also hope that the worldwide image of Rwanda will change in the coming years. The tourism sector is growing and foreign investment seems to be increasing as well. It’s really a lovely place to visit as a tourist. The national parks are incredibly well kept and worth visiting, from Volcanoes National Park to Nyungwe National Forest and the Akagara Preserve. Furthermore, it’s extremely safe. I remember speaking to a Kenyan friend of mine who remarked that the streets of Kigali are very safe in comparison to other capital cities in Africa. He said he would walk around Kigali at night and feel safe, but in some other capital cities in East Africa he would never do that. Just a consideration if any of you readers are considering a vacation to East Africa in the future…
Following a couple of relaxing days in the rainforest, we woke up early this morning to head back to Kigali for another busy day. Early in the afternoon we said farewell to Ali, Jordyn, and Kiara, who had to head back to the US a couple of days before the rest of us. We then drove to the US Embassy in Kigali for a meeting with a representative of USAID, Molly Bostrom.
Visiting the embassy was odd as they were decorating for the Fourth of July celebrations at the time. It felt like stepping into a tiny bit of America in the middle of Rwanda. Meeting with Molly was really interesting and informative. She works with the education part of USAID in Rwanda and had a lot of great stuff to tell us about what they had been doing in Rwanda. To be honest, I had very little knowledge of this prior to the meeting, so I learned a lot. It definitely gave me a good foundation for where I can go to do more research on education in Rwanda right now.
After meeting with Molly, we had another meeting set up with Nate Hamilton of the International Education Exchange (IEE). IEE does a lot of cool work with teacher training in Rwanda, and we’ve been interested in partnering with them for a while. In our first year working in Rwanda, we sent Kabwende teachers to a regional IEE teacher training to provide them with some professional development and support. Last year, we paid a local teacher to do additional teacher training at Kabwende. Moving forward, we’re not sure how we’ll continue to partner with them, but meeting with Nate was a great place to start.
First, Nate told us a little bit about what IEE does in Rwanda. He explained that they run a school-based teacher training program by placing a teacher trainer in a school and having them spend one-on-one time with teachers, observing their lessons and providing feedback and ideas for better lesson planning and teaching. After working here for a while, he talked about the particular areas that he and his trainers are emphasizing now. “What we really care about now,” he said, “is the critical thinking part of education, the creativity.”
Here, Books & Beyond comes in as a great way of integrating critical thinking and creativity as well as providing students with access to print material. Integrating books and print material in the classroom is an essential part of improving the quality of education here, as it has been primarily oral for many years.
In the end, the meeting was great as we were able to share our experiences with Nate and learn at the same time. We’ll see what the future has in store for B&B and IEE…
This morning we left Chez Lando early to drive to Butare, the university town of Rwanda. On the way we stopped in Nyanza to visit the Rukali Palace Museum and the Rswero Palace Art Museum. Both museums were excellent! At the Rukali Palace Museum we got to tour both an ancient and a more “modern” king’s palace and learn about the history and culture of Rwanda’s kings. Later, at the Rswero Palace Art Museum, we had a chance to see a great collection of modern art, some by Rwandans and others by various artists worldwide. I really enjoyed walking through and viewing the various pieces. I’m a big fan of modern art, and I had never seen anything like this in Rwanda before, so I thought it was really cool.
After stopping in Nyanza we made our way to Butare and stopped first at the National Museum of Rwanda, an ethnographic institution centered around Rwandan history and culture. They had a wide variety of artifacts on display covering various aspects of Rwandan life. It was very thorough, and certainly worth visiting for someone who wants to learn more about Rwandan culture.
Here we also met up with our friend Simon Peter again, who had come to Butare for the day to visit the University. Since Simon Peter needed to go to the University anyway, we drove over to the campus of Rwanda’s National University with him and went on a brief tour. Simon Peter is a graduate of the university with a degree in History. He was very excited to show us his alma mater and took us to several places on campus where he used to study.
As we walked through the university and later the streets of Butare, I was reminded of how different Butare is from Kinigi or Kigali. It really has a very unique feel in comparison with the rest of Rwanda. Last time I described it as “the Bloomington of Rwanda” and I still think that is somewhat true. It has a real liberal or intellectual energy to it. I really enjoy being here.
Today we left Butare to head back to Kigali. In the city we visited a few markets and ran some errands before ending the day with a visit to Abdoul’s home in the city. Abdoul is our dear friend and driver, and it was really cool to see where he lives. We had a good time hanging out and chatting with Abdoul and his best friend, Kalissa, before heading back to Chez Lando for the evening.
Our last day in Rwanda! I woke up early to go for one last walk around the city and take a few pictures, hopefully capturing Kigali to share with our friends and supporters back at home. I also did a few final interviews with the IU students at the hotel, hoping to get their final thoughts on the trip overall. For lunch we ate at Karibu, a delicious buffet style restaurant that serves traditional Rwandan foods. Afterward we headed to the airport for a long day of traveling home.
I’m sad to leave Rwanda a second time, especially after such a wonderful visit. This trip has been very exciting and very productive in a lot of different ways. I’ve watched my fellow students learn and grow through immersion in another culture, I’ve seen first-hand how much Kabwende has improved over the past three years, and I’ve helped to play a much bigger part in ensuring that the project will continue to succeed in the future. While I’m sad to go, I’m also very excited to see what this next year will bring with Books & Beyond. And I have a feeling that this is not my last time in Rwanda. I am certain I will come back someday, somehow.
Finally, I would like to extend a huge thank you to our friends and supporters who have made this trip and this experience possible. We couldn’t do it without your help. Thanks for standing by our side and making these efforts a reality, and thanks for reading my account of it!