One class finds meaning half a world away

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

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 five years ago. Western News asked three students from that class – Natalie Abeysena, Rachel Goldstein and Mariana Prado – to reflect on that trip. Here’s what they had to say:

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Rwanda group photo


By Rachel Goldstein

I have always been skeptical of the effectiveness of volunteering trips abroad.

This service-learning trip, however, is different from any other opportunity I have ever encountered. The initial four-month in-class component, a requirement for this course, is essential in making the experience a success. With a small class of nine people, we were able to familiarize ourselves with each other and, more importantly, to form a cohesive team before we even set foot in Rwanda. We spent those four months learning about the culture and history of Rwanda. We also learned about the importance and value of experiential service-learning compared to volunteering.

Embarking on this journey, I knew that no matter what, I would learn an incredible amount about Rwanda and myself, but I was unsure of the value and impact of our contribution.

Rachel Goldstein

On our second day in Kigali, we were assigned our work placements. I, along with four of my peers, was placed at Centre Marembo, an organization with several incredible initiatives, including providing young girls, who have been sexually abused and therefore rejected by their families, with shelter and a supportive environment. Centre Marembo also supports a shelter for boys who had previously been homeless. The employees work tirelessly to provide for these children so they may receive an education.

Another initiative of Centre Marembo is providing sexual health education to men and women all over Kigali.

Our team’s task was to teach sexual health at a local high school. We worked with Rwandan youth, teaching about the power of family planning, the male and female reproductive organs, sexually transmitted infections and how to protect against them, and methods of contraception. Although the majority of the students we taught knew about contraception and sexually transmitted infections, many did not understand the anatomy and physiology of their own bodies.

I realized how simple knowledge I take for granted actually vastly improves my quality of life. For example, we received hundreds of questions in regards to menstruation during our time at the high school. The students would ask us what was wrong with their bodies. Were they sick? Were they dying? How do they make this stop?

The first few days teaching were disheartening – to say the least.

Because of the language barrier, and my general discomfort teaching for the first time, the class did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. But, we learned, we adapted and we improved our lessons exponentially over those five weeks. By the end, we had taught almost 250 male and female students about the importance of family planning, sexual health and awareness.

I came to Rwanda wondering if I would help a single person, wondering if our team would be helping anyone and I left knowing that almost 250 students had listened to our message. I am a realistic person; I understand that perhaps not all 250 students will put this new knowledge into practice.

However, this service-learning trip has taught me that even if only one student put this new knowledge into practice, our work would contribute to improving that one person’s quality of life. That is the ultimate goal of service-learning – give what you can and receive an invaluable experience in return.

I can say without a doubt that my experience in Rwanda was invaluable. I felt as though I was constantly being bombarded with knowledge and experiences that I could only receive by going that vibrant country first-hand.

We traveled on the 20th anniversary of the horrific genocide that tore the country to the ground. The Rwandan people had been experiencing intense civil strife for so many years. However, they have managed to rise from the ashes and rebuild a strong and flourishing community in which the two ethnic groups are able to integrate and assimilate into a single people – the Rwandan people.

This experiential learning trip was the most incredible experience. Within those five short weeks, I encountered more inspirational men and women than I had in my entire life.

Being able to work with the Rwandan people for a brighter future has truly allowed my intercultural competence to grow. This experience has eliminated any preconceived notions I had associated with Rwanda because of its past, and has therefore allowed me to become a better global citizen. I have been to 20 countries and five continents in my life and have yet to experience a place so filled with beauty, strength, perseverance and kindness as Rwanda.

I am counting down the days until I return.

Rwanda group photo

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Rwanda group photo


By Natalie Abeysena

Some of the things I witnessed, and the emotions I experienced while in Rwanda, could not be reproduced in a classroom.

First arriving, I did not know what to expect in terms of the country, people, culture or their societal norms. As the weeks passed, I witnessed a strong sense of community, pride and a commitment to advancement. Having the opportunity to work with Centre Marembo, a centre that acts as a resource hub for youth who come from backgrounds of abuse, neglect or extreme poverty, I witnessed how open-minded and strong-willed Rwandans were about adopting initiatives that led to societal development, specifically amongst their youth.

From family planning education to youth counselling and vocational training, the centre embodied the philosophy of being open, non-judgemental and speaking about issues considered taboo.

Natalie Abeysena

One individual in specific, centre director Nicolette Nsabimana, especially embodied these principles. She is someone I am strikingly fond of and found her tireless devotion to protecting the vulnerable energizing and exceptionally inspirational. She oversees all of the operations and acts as a guardian to the entire community. With a strong belief in the potential of, and equality for. every child, her actions demonstrated how passion and diligence could overcome any feat. She was extremely motivating.

But like Nicolette, this stubborn drive for fruition irrespective of any obstacles was evident across generations of individuals in Rwanda – even in teaching sexual health to the middle school students. At every level – teachers, principals or administrative support – the level of cooperation and flexibility revealed how much the country valued exposure to the complex issues they have trouble addressing as a result of a lack of resources.

Even in the young children playing in the school yard, I observed hand-made toys and soccer balls made out of recycled goods and string. There is not just a great amount of hope and strong will, but also an air of resourcefulness among the people there. Being exposed to a culture that embodies such positive traits not only left me motivated to apply these principles to my own life, but also optimistic about the future. I knew a strong attitude, such as the one the people of Rwanda collectively embodied, was a powerful force to encourage future development.

I was provided with unforgettable lessons on the realities of the human condition. I had witnessed a degree of resilience to adversity that made me question my own life and the triviality of the issues I had deemed significant in Canada. I not only obtained a more genuine understanding of how children and young adults deal with profound issues such as a lack of food, water, or even resources for education, but also realized the repercussions of stereotypes and assumptions established by primarily developed societies regarding the needs of people in developing countries.

This trip changed me in several ways.

Witnessing some hardships and unfortunate realities among the people of Rwanda, there were moments when I found it difficult to remain hopeful and positive. This trip gave me a sense of strength I could not have obtained in any other way.

I learned to confront – and accept – those realities for what they were and not let them overwhelm me. I learned to analyze those issues in a practical manner, brainstorm ways I could contribute and find ways to make those ideas come to fruition.

The idea of bringing about global change seemed feasible, attainable and sustainable by the end of the trip.

Rwanda group photo

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Rwanda group photo


By Mariana Prado

A typical day in Kigali began at around 6:30 a.m. when we would wake up to the rising sun peeking over the rolling hills we saw from our rooms at Centre Pastorale St. Paul (our home for the duration of the trip). Before setting off to work, we shared a breakfast prepared by the staff from the centre. But not even the bold Rwandan coffee or the copious amounts of porridge and tropical fruits served were enough to fuel us for the long workday ahead.

My personal daily energy boost came upon arrival at our work placement, the Gisimba Memorial Centre. I still shiver at the thought of each morning, when we entered the school to see hundreds of children, beaming with endless laughter and yelling “teacher, teacher”and swarming us with the warmest of hugs.

It was a combination of these greetings and our daily ‘warming-up’ morning assemblies that provided me with an endless source of motivation and energy to do my very best during the busy and exhausting workdays.

Mariana Prado

There was something incredibly powerful about these early morning assemblies, something about having the whole school (close to 150 children, along with all teachers and staff)standing in a circle on those red dust soccer fields, singing an hour-long repertoire of Kinyarwanda (the language spoken in Rwanda) and English songs – all accompanied by wonderful dance moves and actions.

It was incredible seeing the teachers, all of whom had diverse backgrounds and their own stories of unbelievable hardships, give all their energy and heart to the children, singing and dancing with contagious happiness and passion. It was these moments that constantly reminded me of Rwanda’s remarkable resilience, and of all of its citizens’ strength and commitment towards the betterment of their society, despite the tragic events that happened only 20 years ago.

I am eternally thankful for the opportunity to discover a new country and culture that this course gave me. I came back with a new sense of purpose moving forward in my studies and career, and I have become aware of the power and responsibility we hold as students in Canada.

We must become storytellers, peacemakers and leaders that will help deconstruct the ‘single story’ that traps and limits developing countries like Rwanda. I am convinced that it is these types of community service learning opportunities that will help develop the type of global citizens our world so desperately needs.

Rwanda group photo

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All students are invited to an information session on the Rwanda: Culture, Society and Reconstruction course at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16 in Western Student Services Building, 3134. The session will feature first-hand accounts from organizers and former students about this unique community service learning experience.

The Department of French Studies course, which started five years ago, involves a four-week international community service learning experience in Rwanda. Professor Henri Boyi is the lead instructor.

For details, contact Boyi at, Anne-Marie Fischer at or Mirela Parau