Volunteering in Rwanda
I came to Rwanda as a volunteer through lovevolunteers.com that has a number of projects in Africa but also on other continents. The main reason why I chose this organisation was because of the lowest fees for these types of programme I could find.. Although they are based in New Zealand, there was no problem with communication. In Rwanda I work for the local charity called Children Might Foundation which is funded by Aid for Education UK. The organisation offers a number of projects for volunteers such as work in the nursery, primary school, agriculture or construction. As I arrived in Rwanda in the last week of term, my programme has been tailor-made and includes work with the nursery children, homework club, home visits to children as part of the sponsorship programme and finally some administration work in the office.
TUBARERE NURSERY SCHOOL
The building of the nursery was actually built by the construction volunteers and the premises are fairly new — it was only open in January this year.
The building is fantastic — walls are very colourful and full of aids to support children’s learning such as pictures and English vocabulary for body parts, animals, colours, numbers etc. I was working in the nursery only in the first week of my time here, as they have now broken up for the summer holiday.
On my first day I was welcomed by the children like some sort of celebrity with each of them taking turns to touch my hair, skin or trying to climb on my lap.
Being full of enthusiasm, I offered to teach the children some outdoor games which I played with my friends back in the day. Sadly, due to my lack of authority; or awkwardness with children; or their limited English; or their limited attention span (or a combination of all) explaining the rules of the game proved impossible. Instead I lost half of them to a playground, another part never bothered to leave the classroom and 5 or 6 followed me around fighting over who gets to hold my hand. I think it is fair to say that my first attempt was a bit chaotic. In my defence, I was definitely outnumbered with the ratio of one of me to 35 of them.
Children who attend the homework club are those who are under the sponsorship programme as their families struggle financially. The teaching takes place outdoors, on the grounds of Tubarere nursery school. We meet them three times a week for three hours to teach them English, play games and sing.
There are around 100 children that are entitled to take part in this initiative, but normally around 60–70 of them turn up. Learning their names is also a bit challenging — they have a habit of introducing themselves with both surname (usually long) and first name, with a little space in between so I don’t know where one stops and the other begins.
I noticed that families here don’t share a surname — Robert, my colleague explained to me that when a child is born, all family, including extended relatives gather and propose surnames that the new born should wear. The elderly in the family have the final say to approve surname for a child. In exchange I told him that in the UK or Poland, traditionally the wife takes on a surname of her husband and their children also carry that name. He was as fascinated to hear about it as I was to hear about their way.
The most challenging thing for me is the lack of resources. Some kids sometimes come without notebooks or pens to the class — whether they forget them or don’t have them, I don’t know… When I was trying to act on this, I was told that there aren’t any materials such as that to give out to them, and they should be responsible for having them with. It made me realise how easy it is to take basic things for granted that you would just expect in a school — such as blu-tack, access to the printer to circulate hand-outs or print flash cards. Instead, the teachers need to rely on their creativity and try their best to make something from nothing.
I have been assigned year 4 — commonly called here P4 (abbreviation of primary 4). Last Wednesday to support my last lesson, I went to town to print out some pictures of daily routine as a worksheet for them. As I suspected the novelty of getting colourful pictures got them fully interested and active in the lesson. At the end of the class one of the boys, Irene shyly approached me and asked if he could keep the hand-out, almost like he feared I might not agree. My consent was followed by a loud cheer from the whole class. I have honestly never seen kids so happy just because they got to keep a page with pictures… Nevertheless, having seen their living conditions, I can easily understand how much they might yearn for something that would stimulate them.
Approach to schooling here is completely different to the one in the western world. Several times a day the school head teacher tells children that she would beat them if they don’t learn their lesson, don’t know a prayer or don’t do as she says. Sometimes she raises her hand as if she wanted to hit them or carries a stick around. These are mostly empty threats (although I have witnessed an occasional slap here and there) yet it really shows a cultural difference and makes me wonder how would she react on the fact that in EU country she’d probably lose her job just for saying things like that. On the other hand she is full of nursery rhymes, songs and games which I suppose ensures some balance in her relationship with the kids and in fact makes her quite popular with children!
A couple of days a week I travel to the surrounding villages to visit the families of the children that benefit from sponsorship. Although primary education in Rwanda is free, the associated costs of schooling such as uniforms, teaching materials and stationery are sometimes a barrier for some to attend school.
The purpose of such visits is to update their sponsors on how they get on at school, provide them with the photographs of the kids and their living conditions, financial situation etc. The kids come from low-income, mostly fatherless families where the father is either dead or has started a new family and takes no interest in his children. This experience really put things in the perspective for me and made me question whether we really are masters of our fate and have a right to take the credit for our achievements. Or maybe, we are merely a bunch of opportunists in favourable settings. Half of the kids asked about their future, tell me that they want to become doctors and I wonder if this dream is not bigger than them.