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 seven years ago. Western News asked three students from that class – Misha Apel, Sean Alexander Cousins and Maricel Hope – to reflect on that trip.
Finding meaning in ubuntu
By Misha Apel
Before my trip to Rwanda, I did not quite understand the meaning of ‘ubuntu,’ a Bantu philosophical term. I knew the definition we discussed in class – “I am because you are” – as a concept of mutual human kindness, but why am I because someone else is? I had always believed my accomplishments were due to my hard work, and that everything I did was for my own personal benefit.
Yet, this is exactly what I have noticed changing about myself since my return to Canada.
Rwanda taught me to be more appreciative of the influences of people around me, especially those who are my support system and who have steered me to become the person I am today. The children at the Caritas Centre location in the Nyamirambo District of Kigali taught me just as much as I tried to teach them about acceptance and collaboration. No matter where I came from or who I was, I was accepted as part of the Caritas family.
On June 16, we participated in The Day of the African Child. Hundreds of children gathered at the centre and celebrated the rights of the child and showcased the children’s talents. This event has been celebrated every year since 1991 when first implemented by the Organization of African Union (OAU) after the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa. It declares that children everywhere, particularly in Africa, are entitled to a home, an education and a happy life.
The centres we worked at in Rwanda were all trying to do just that and promote healthy lifestyles for their children who deserve the same educational opportunities as every child in the world.
The children were so excited to perform and sang songs all week long, whether during arranged practices or spontaneously in their free time. As a formally trained dancer, I especially enjoyed the traditional dancing done by the older children that told stories about the Rwandan culture. It was beautiful to watch children who had so little and deserved so much get a day to celebrate their uniqueness, value and successes.
It became more difficult every day we spent in Rwanda to believe these children, who were full of joy, optimism and positivity, spent many years of their childhood on the streets. My preconception of a typical ‘street kid’ was completely challenged – every child had their own wonderful personality full of potential and the knowledge they were capable of turning their lives around.
These children lacked love and positive role models, and they quickly became attached to us.
On our last day of volunteer work, we were told to say goodbye to our children because we could not see them the following Monday before our departure. My work partner, Max, and I regularly discussed how we never saw these children cry, complain or whine. As we were saying our final goodbyes, our children were so upset when they learned we were actually leaving, they all cried – and so did we.
As street children, they were not cuddled or encouraged, they were not told they were smart or they were loved. We made an effort to make sure each child knew how special they were, not only to us, but to their communities and to themselves.
Although leaving Rwanda was one of the most difficult days of my life, the Caritas Centre surprised us with all of the children arriving on a bus to spend the day together. This was, and will continue to be, among the happiest moments of my life.
These children exuded great energy, beauty and kindness, and an incredible amount of strength. Seeing the children whom I can confidently call my best friends one additional time will be a memory I will always cherish. I am honoured I had the opportunity to watch them flourish during my five weeks at Caritas because I truly saw a change in their demeanor, just as much as mine.
If Ubuntu believes in connecting and bonding all people in human-ness, then “I truly am because they are,” and I always will be.
Ubuntu is not merely a concept I could have studied if I truly intended to capture its meaning. Instead, it was something I needed to experience and try to apply to my everyday life. Rwanda will always hold a special place in my heart where I was able to join with others to create our own unique story, with our own aspirations and passions, and to create a strong collective to work for the good of others, and for ourselves. Ubuntu is about being a better version of oneself, for mutual growth and the benefit of the collective.
Misha Apel is a second-year student from Dundas, Ont., double majoring in SASAH (School for the Advanced Studies in the Arts and Humanities) and English.
Changing the story in her mind
By Maricel Hope
A people or a country is whittled down to a single story when it is shown “as only one thing, over and over again.” When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made this point in her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, she challenged me to avoid holding stereotypes.
After taking French 3140B, I finally understand the real depths of her statement.
I had only known Rwanda through the media’s portrayal of the 1994 genocide. Living in Kigali for five weeks, and participating in community service, showed me Rwanda is not only its history but an amalgam of rich cultural traditions, closely knit communities and transformative leadership. However, this was only one of the many lessons I would learn in the ‘land of a thousand hills.’
During my stay in Rwanda, I joined the team at Centre Marembo. This NGO is focused on rehabilitating girls who had experienced past traumas including physical and sexual abuse, early pregnancy and abandonment. Under the leadership of Nicolette Nsabimana, co-founder and director of Centre Marembo, and her team of educators and social workers, the girls are housed and schooled, counselled and equipped with skills for self-empowerment.
We assisted with Centre Marembo’s second annual Advocacy Day. It provided a public forum to raise awareness about children’s rights violations. Government representatives, high school children, local and international NGOs and community members gathered to debate this year’s theme, Who Is To Blame (in Children’s Rights Violations)? We worked long hours to ensure the day ran smoothly. Advocacy Day hosted more than 100 people and included thought-provoking speeches and testimonials. It was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip.
My day-to-day life as a volunteer taught me invaluable lessons about service-learning and intercultural competence. Particularly, the incredible girls at Centre Marembo taught me lessons about resilience.
The first time I visited them, the girls accepted us instantly as new friends – they danced with us, taught us how to play their favourite games. Over the weeks that followed, I was constantly amazed at their openness and unfaltering cheerfulness. One of the girls in my Primary 2 (P2) class never said a word that wasn’t accompanied by a smile, and frequently took a little while to answer my questions because she was laughing so much. I had expected the girls to be subdued and reticent because of the injustices that had been done to them.
Every day, they proved this view was completely wrong. Witnessing their ability to regain trust and overcome adversity showed me the importance of organizations like Centre Marembo and their ability to change the lives of children. I will never forget when one of the girls smilingly said to me, “You teach me English; I teach you Kinyarwanda.” Through that simple expression, I felt we were instant friends, sharing ideas and helping each other.
At first, my lack of fluency in Kinyarwanda prevented me from getting to know the girls. However, I soon realized they were using their creativity and intelligence to convey their personalities, and the language barrier became less of an issue. When our team was tasked with teaching English, the language barrier challenged us once again. Thankfully, we received a tremendous amount of support from the Marembo team. For example, the centre’s translator, Jean-Bosco Kagarama, and psychologist, Jean-Paul Ndayambaje, taught me numerous expressions in Kinyarwanda and this had a huge impact on each lesson’s outcome.
A major part of my placement that strongly impacted me was the Advocacy Campaign for children’s rights. Nicolette orchestrated an amazing outreach campaign in conjunction with the Gender Monitoring Office of Rwanda, Les Enfants de Dieu, and local councils throughout the districts of Gasabo, Nyamirambo and Kicukiro. The campaign created community-led discussions about child abuse and children’s rights, drug abuse among children, parental roles and human trafficking.
It was especially heart-warming to watch a member of the Marembo team advocate on behalf of children who end up living on the street because of family issues. She had grown up as one of the girls in the Centre Marembo family and I was incredibly inspired by her segment of the discussion. Her passion for championing the rights of the child was unmistakable.
Oftentimes, the adjective ‘life-changing’ is ubiquitous in testimonies from people who have volunteered in another country. Before embarking on this venture, I would have assumed they were just using the term lightly or for dramatic effect. I did not anticipate my worldview would be entirely transformed. Being an international student, I am especially grateful to Western for providing me with such a unique learning experience. This course has, without a doubt, been one of the most life-changing opportunities I have ever been experienced.
Maricel Hope is a third-year Honours Specialization Biology student. In her free time, she likes to watch foreign language films and read tear-jerker novels.
Listening to the silence between words
By Sean Alexander Cousins
Les Enfants de Dieu (meaning ‘the children of God’), a secular centre that houses and rehabilitates boys who have been living on the streets, works with the boys in many different capacities, taking a holistic approach to their wellbeing. The boys go to school, learn to take care of themselves and are given opportunities to pursue personal interests such as painting, dancing and acrobatics.
During my time at the centre, I taught classes on English and mathematics. The remainder of our time was spent in the library and on the playground, helping the boys to read and speak English.
We were encouraged to set our own goals and learning objectives before travelling to Rwanda. I hoped to improve my intercultural communication skills, and gain a better awareness of my own cultural and personal biases. While I can say these goals were met, they were far surpassed. I learned much more about myself, and about humanity, than I ever expected to while in Rwanda.
The boys at the centre were loving, bright, confident and intelligent. They were some of the most compassionate and generous people I have ever met. The boys defied the stereotypes we attach to children who are unfortunate enough to live on the streets. They are not “street children” – they are normal children whose human and civil rights should be strongly protected and advocated for by all of us.
This statement was reinforced at the very beginning of our placement by Charles Hazabintwali, the centre’s coordinator. He reminded us these children, as extraordinary as they may be, were often seen and treated as outlaws by those who don’t know them. Some of them were living on the streets because they had no one to care for them; others saw themselves as a burden to their poor families and resorted to living on the streets for their survival.
Every day, Charles and the staff at Les Enfants de Dieu worked to remind the boys of their worth and treat them with the dignity they deserve.
Having had a few months to reflect, I still find my experience difficult to articulate. Many of my most cherished moments are those which happened in the silence between words. Laughter and facial expressions become infinitely more meaningful when you are unable to communicate through spoken language.
During my time at Les Enfants de Dieu, I became close with a boy named Pascale. Each morning, Pascale came to me with a list of phrases he wanted to learn in English. Some were funny – one day he asked me how to say “children like drinking milk.” Others, revealed a lot about Pascale’s sincerity and thoughtfulness. “You are my friend” and “I am happy when we are together” were two of the first phrases he wanted to learn in English. Pascale, and all the other boys, taught me how to be a better friend, and about the importance of telling people how much they mean to you.
Service learning is rooted in reciprocity. During our time at Les Enfants de Dieu, I tried my hardest to give as much as I could to the centre. Still, I am left feeling I will never be able to do enough for the boys. I must remind myself we did good work there, and perhaps the nature of reciprocity, is not perfectly symmetrical.
On my last day at the centre, Charles said something that made me think about how to move forward from this experience. He told me the relationships we made with the staff and children will extend far beyond this experience. Though they were formed in the context of a service-learning course, our relationships are much more than that. They are real friendships that have the potential to last a lifetime.
As young intellectuals, we should care about the world and other human beings; we should undertake the task of building strong bridges between global communities. This life-changing experience has given me the unique opportunity to do just that, and I hope to return to Rwanda as soon as possible.
Sean Alexander Cousins is a fifth-year student pursuing a dual degree in Biology and Ivey Business School. Within his studies, he has an interest in social enterprise and ecosystem health.