Class continues to open eyes to the world

The Rwanda: Culture, Society and Reconstruction course in the Department of French Studies, taught by professor Henri Boyi, involves a five-week international service-learning experience in Rwanda. This course started four years ago. Western News asked three students from that class – Anne-Marie Dolinar, Kylie Erika Spadafora and Martha Elliott – to reflect on that trip. Here’s what they had to say, in part:

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International community service learning is a great window into the worldwide community, allowing students to become more globally aware and culturally competent.

Discovering Rwanda was especially valuable in these respects, with the added luxury of lush rolling hills, vibrantly coloured storefronts and the most welcoming people surrounding us. Rwanda: Society, Culture, and Reconstruction went above and beyond what could ever be gained from a regular lecture as it applied everything learnt in the classroom to a truly life-changing experience.

My placement was at Gisimba Memorial Centre in Kigali, where I helped teach English to one of the nursery school classes in the mornings, and spent time with the youth at the adjoining orphanage in the afternoons.

The teachers at the nursery school were such wonderful, hard-working women. They welcomed us into their classrooms with open arms and seemed to have a never-ending supply of energy to devote to their students. I helped teach my class of 3-year-olds how to count to 10, sing the ABC’s and other nursery rhymes, identify animals and fruit and colour ‘inside the lines.’

There was never a dull moment at recess, with 140 children under 6 running, dancing and playing with and on everything, including their Canadian teachers.

During my afternoons at the Gisimba orphanage, I had the opportunity to exchange stories with many youth. The younger children told me about their favourite colours, foods, activities, subjects at school and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Even when a language barrier existed, communication never ceased and our fun was never compromised.

The older youth would talk about their past experiences, and experiences they wished to have in the future – like go to university or have their own home – and also asked many questions about our lives in Canada.

Some youth were comfortable speaking about their life as it related to the genocide, but I wondered whether they were only sharing this because it is what they expected we wanted to hear. For this reason, I appreciated that in many situations the genocide did not come up in conversation. This reinforced that although everyone in Rwanda was affected by the genocide, and it is by no means a forgotten event in history, it is but a single story of Rwanda and Rwandans and there is so much more to the country and its people to take in.

I believe because of the manner in which our course, trip and placements were organized, we were set up to have a great experience, one that truly made an impact on me. Because of this impact, I feel a connection to Rwanda. This connection drives me to keep in contact with the friends I made, wills me to return one day, and motivates me to share my story with others to inspire them and ignite new ideas and perspectives. I thank Western and the faculty involved in this program for promoting internationalization through such an amazing learning opportunity.

Anne-Marie Dolinar is a third-year Health Sciences student. She plans to transfer to the Foods and Nutrition program at Brescia University College.

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My personal experiences in Kigali, Rwanda is largely centered on my placement at Centre Marembo, a centre for street youth. This site provides a six-month mechanics course for individuals who cannot afford education and also raises money by making and selling beautiful beaded jewelry constructed out of magazine paper.

The amount of creativity is phenomenal in Rwanda. Creativity was also seen in the form of entertainment among the youth. Every Friday the Centre Marembo team spent a day at the Umugongo House, which housed 20 male street youth.

With very minimal material toys or activities, the children always managed to be entertained with games that required no materials. The bonding and sense of family that resulted from these interactive games and activities was evident amongst the boys, whose age ranged between approximately 5 to 20 years old. For example, a boy would fall and scrape his knee and the rest of the young boys would swarm him to brush off the dirt and hug him.

One aspect of service learning I found to be extremely beneficial was reflection.

As there are many differences between cultures, it was not uncommon for us to experience many conflicting emotions, especially during the start of the experience when we are initially submerged in a completely new culture. Reflection allowed us to process current emotions, discuss recent experiences, gain other perspectives on issues, relate to each other and take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. Reflections took place twice a week and were led by different students each time.

I really enjoyed the reflections we had and I enjoyed that I got to learn about the experiences of the students who were placed at Gisimba Memorial Centre. Both sites were very different and the experiences were as well.  I feel like I got to experience more about Rwanda by learning about different aspects of the culture through other peoples experiences. I also feel like I would not have enjoyed the trip as much if I did not get to share my feelings and get feedback from the group.

All in all, this experience was the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. With the knowledge and experiences I have gained over my five-week service learning experience I have enhanced an abundance of valuable personal skills such as civic responsibility, cultural behavioral attitudes and intercultural competence.

Kylie Erika Spadafora is a fourth-year student working on an Honours Specialization in Psychology.

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Although it has become increasingly clear to me how difficult and uncomfortable it can be to identify the work of dominant Western ideologies/narratives of privilege in one’s own expectations/assumptions and behaviour, I believe the service-learning model of my trip to Rwanda provided me with the language and framework within which to question and critique my actions. This proved to be a truly transformative and perspective-changing exercise. I do not believe it would be possible, or at least not likely to happen, outside of the cultural immersion experienced in Rwanda.

This course pushed us to become more aware of transnational political, social, socioeconomic and cultural issues. Historicizing Rwanda exposes the complexities of their culture, society and history, which in turn, enables the student to reject grand narratives (single stories) and instills in the student an openness and respect for every individuals unique experience of themselves and their country.

The biweekly group reflection built into my service-learning trip to Rwanda stimulated almost constant self-reflection, which I found invaluable in developing my own cultural self-awareness, understanding and respect for Rwandan culture, and consideration for how my presence in Rwanda both affected me and those at Centre Marambo.

Sitting here reflecting on my experiences in Rwanda, on the community that was built, the friendships, the laughter, the tears, the bravery and love demonstrated by my classmates, and the open arms with which we were received, I feel so grateful I have been given this experience.

My time in Rwanda was so incredibly powerful; before I went I never would have imagined it would be possible for me to learn so much about myself in only five weeks. I cannot begin to describe the deep connections that were formed – cultural, emotional, spiritual and intellectual exchange, the dialogue that was opened, nor the love and empathy that was shared. There are undoubtedly lessons I have learned from my time in Rwanda that I have not yet even realized or managed to put into words.

One thing is for certain, though: Rwanda has given me more than I could even return.

The path to intercultural competence is a difficult one – riddled with troubling realizations about oneself, one’s culture, and one’s beliefs – however the intercultural/transnational solidarity that forms when one rejects cultural expectations and ideologies and open’s oneself up to Otherness, to transformation, truly is life changing.

Martha Elliott