The Rwanda: Culture, Society and Reconstruction course in the Department of French Studies, taught by Professor Henri Boyi, involves a 5–week international service-learning experience in Rwanda. Western News asked three students from that class – Tara Dupuis, Patricia Omoruwa and Elizabeth Dupuis – to reflect on that trip.
Never met a stranger
After months of preparation Rwanda didn’t feel quite like home to me right away, but I loved it just the same.
We saw men walking with briefcases on their heads so they could greet their friends and neighbours with two hands. When one enters a room, they greet every individual with a friendly handshake and a kind word. In Rwanda, we had a hard time understanding this concept as strangers will often greet each other like old friends.
Not once in Rwanda, a country that was majorly let down by the international community in 1994, did I ever feel like an outsider.
The children are somewhat less inhibited than the adults, and when we walked into a schoolyard unannounced, our class was swarmed with jubilant and excited children who took us by the hands or climbed all over us. It was often hard to sit down without little fingers braiding our hair, or smoothing fly-aways out of our faces.
At one placement we spent a few days building a foundation for a water tank. For three days we carried heavy rocks from the top of a hill to the bottom, where the tank would be placed. Kids from the neighbouring village, who weren’t benefitting from the water tank, worked hard alongside us, including one toddler who couldn’t make it up the hill without being carried.
To experience this, and countless other selfless acts, was truly a gift.
I will not soon forget the conversations we had with people in Rwanda.
As a group of 14, it was not hard to see that we were foreigners (or mzungus as they called us). Many people were shocked we were so young and were graduating university already.
“You’re just a baby,” one person exclaimed.
“I’m two years older than you,” I answered back.
“No you don’t understand,” he said, “most people your age in Rwanda are going through high school at night while they work multiple jobs during the day. We can’t afford to go to school full time, even if we’re lucky enough to afford school at all.”
Many people we met our own age said they would go to university only “if God willed it” because it would literally take a miracle to get them there. I have never in my life felt so fortunate.
Although we started off the trip feeling like we were in a different world, we left Rwanda wiser, happier, and perhaps more confidant as a result of the ultimate compassion and acceptance we were shown day after day. It seems to be a general rule in Rwanda to always give more than you take, but unfortunately I don’t think our class was able to give back more than we took with us. If wealth was measured in kindness, happiness or tranquility instead of dollar amounts, then Rwanda would be a world superpower for sure.
– Tara Dupuis
Psychology, fourth year
Remembering her boys
The first thing you notice in Rwanda is its panorama. When we arrived in Kigali it was breathtaking to see a night skyline of rolling hills that were lit up as if it were Christmas. The view by day was even more beautiful with green hills endlessly wandering off. Geographically, Rwanda is beyond beautiful and with good reason as it is known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’; however, the Rwandan people are what make this land so rich, warm and inviting.
Being bilingual in both French and English, I was placed at a centre called Enfants de Dieu (Children of God). Enfants de Dieu’s primary mission is to rehabilitate and reintegrate boys who were once street kids. My role was to teach English to the younger grades of boys. But it soon became apparent that my role would extend far beyond that.
Among the strongest memories came one afternoon after I had finished teaching my lessons for the day. I noticed that twice a week the boys were responsible for washing their school uniforms, but I never really knew exactly where they went to do so.
This particular afternoon I went to the back field to see most of the boys congregating by the stream each with their own basin and bar of soap. Naturally, I extended my hand to help.
The boys found it funny and almost odd that I was trying to help, but they put me to work nonetheless.
This afternoon was a couple weeks into my placement so I was familiar with the boys by name; but until this afternoon, I was never that familiar with them through any emotional level.
What struck me while I was washing and scrubbing their little uniforms was how disciplined these boys were despite their dark pasts. After you hear their stories you cannot imagine ever having a positive disposition if you experienced their struggle. Most boys turned to the streets because their parents could not afford to care for them. Many boys were abused and, in one case, a boy’s parents tried to poison him.
Despite their misfortune, these boys count themselves as the lucky ones. Not only can they study, they are clothed, housed and fed at Enfants de Dieu.
The most remarkable key concept at the centre is that any boy wishing to come to Enfants de Dieu must do so on his own terms and must come alone.
After the course ended, I travelled for two weeks across East Africa. The day before I was set to fly out of Rwanda, I impulsively decided to say one last goodbye to the boys, my boys.
When I stepped through the centre gates, it took the boys a few seconds to realize who I was, but when they did, it was the best feeling in the world. As they came rushing to me yelling and laughing with joy, I could not imagine leaving them to face a society where warm sentiments and openly amicable affection is not the norm.
– Patricia Omoruwa
Medical sciences and cell biology, third year
Finding love and peace in Rwanda
The nursery school in the Gisimba Memorial Centre hosts approximately 150 children from the orphanage and surrounding neighbourhood, and prepares the children for further education in English or French. When we arrived, classes were already in session, and the dusty yard was silent.
Nothing prepared me for my first moments in the classroom. More than 30 6-year-olds simultaneously jerked their heads toward the door and leapt up in their seats, some waving and some calling to me in kinyarwanda. The teacher, Jeanne, quickly greeted me, taking my surprise arrival in stride. She put her arm around me and guided me to the front in an effort to introduce me to the class.
As I turned to see what Jeanne had written on the chalkboard, I felt a tug on my shirt. I turned back around to see the grinning face of a boy in the blue knit sweater and blue cotton shorts that comprise the school’s uniform. He held up his hand as if to give me a ‘high-five,’ and as I reached forward he quickly ran his hand over his hair and ran back to his seat, amid an explosion of laughter.
The afternoons of those four weeks took place in the orphanage of the centre, a small plot of land housing more than 150 children ranging in age from 3-23. Despite our uncertainty about how to relate to young adults, who had lived through, and were orphaned by, one of the most extreme tragedies in modern history, the people immediately inducted us into their daily activities.
Their various comings and goings were a constant bustle of movement around us, but we felt a continuous acceptance and appreciation from everyone we met. The young children were forever ready for frisbee, tag, hugs, colouring and very messy painting, while the teenagers and young adults included us in their discussions, card games, and planning for the future.
Tony and the rest of his classmates threw every ounce of energy into learning, climbing and singing outside at recess, playing jokes on me (the ‘mzungu’), and earnestly trying to memorize and pronounce the various English words that I taught them about the alphabet, opposites, greetings, colours, shapes, numbers and prepositions. The people at the orphanage had, according to Western standards, very meagre material possessions. But they made concerted efforts to offer to us what they could, in an attempt to find common group upon which we could connect with one another.
At the nursery school, I learned to recognize and appreciate the blessing of health that comes with unsuppressed energy and chaotic noise, the privilege of education and learning and the thrill of a small child’s tight grip on my hand.
At the orphanage, I had an up-close look at the human condition, and I saw real, on-going struggle in the face of unimaginable tragedy and horror. But more importantly, I saw in the people at the orphanage a quiet, collective determination to rise above animosity and poverty, and to never give up hope and a belief in a better future.
My experiences at Gisimba Memorial Centre have given me indescribable empowerment and joy, and it is something I could never repay.
– Elizabeth Dupuis
English/French, Psychology, fourth year