Abigail Smith, Rwanda - 2015
Miriwe! My experience in Rwanda was nothing short of amazing. One of the best parts of my journey to "The Land of A Thousand Hills" (the landscape of Rwanda got us out of breath pretty easily) was actually the journey to the country. We had the pleasure of having a 12 hour layover in Doha, Qatar where the students from the CMU-Qatar campus took us out into their city late at night, sipping on karak and getting to know Education City. We still keep in touch and even took a few of them to Kennywood Amusement Park when they visited Pittsburgh this summer!
My first two and a half weeks were spent in Kigali, working on a technology summit with 7 other students from our Pittsburgh campus. We partnered with students and faculty at our campus in Kigali-which was within in walking distance- and got to know the city really well. Soon I felt comfortable enough to ride the motorcycle taxis throughout the city (and even embraced the cheers of "MUZUNGU!!!" [foreigner] everywhere I went)! We ate at Rwandan buffets, would regularly go to the market downtown (we went to a shop with fabrics piled high and picked out our own to get skirts made), and even saw the movie "Mad Max" with some CMU-R friends. For much of our time in Kigali, we were accompanied by 2 "Presidential Scholars"- native Rwandans that attend university in the US- named Pacis and Espe. They were the best tour guides- and some of the best friends imaginable. Pacis's mom even was so gracious to invite us to her home and cook us a meal (some of the best food I've ever had)!
The workshop was overall a HUGE success. We weren't exactly sure what to expect with the language barrier and all, but the kids at SOS Primary were well behaved and spoke English fairly well (lots of "We are fine, thank you teach-ah!"). Still, I was struck by the differences in the education system from the start. The structure was very much, "repeat after me", and creativity was not a standard part of the curriculum. So that partially explained why the schools did not use their 30 XO laptops that had been donated by the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child. The first week (with the 4th graders) was a bit of a test run with the workshop. We used the visual drag-and-drop programming software "Scratch" and taught them how to make a cat dance across a screen. Some of the kids picked it up very fast, while others struggled to type on the keyboard. The acting workshop also was very much in a "structural phase" the first week, but eventually we formulated a project where the kids would create their own stories and then act them out.
Acting was definitely the favorite among the kids; We had them switch halfway through each day so that 30 kids were in each session (Acting vs Scratch). I loved seeing their smiles light up as they gave me high fives and said "Good morning, teach-ah!".
The second week, we had the 5th grade students use Scratch to "drive a race car" around a unique track that they themselves designed. At times, the number of kids was overwhelming, but the faculty of SOS primary was extremely supportive of our initiative and was around each afternoon.
The last week or so was spent touring the country, visiting all 3 of the National Parks: climbing up muddy volcanoes, trekking to chimpanzees, and spending time in the company of a kind American missionary family that we stayed with. I tagged along with Jesse Thornburg, a PhD student in Electrical Engineering here that spent a year of his life in Rwanda and Congo, and was the best resource imaginable to the country. One of the highlights of the trip was taking inner tubes down a hydroelectric canal in the Rwandan countryside. Jesse helped found a startup called Kopo, a water-purification filter that is entirely fueled by Sunlight. I went with him to a few villages in the Northern part of the country to introduce the concept and get feedback from the communities.
Being in a country that was affected by a devastating tragedy only 21 years ago was a surreal experience. Today you could walk around the streets of Kigali and not know of the genocide that wiped out a quarter of the population, but you still knew that if has affected nearly every single person in some way. When I was at the Memorial museum, I stared at a photograph of the location of the mass killings of women and children in a church, when a Rwandan man turned to me and said, "That's where my mom and sister are." It was absolutely harrowing. Still, Rwanda has come so far to move on from their past to be a tech-forward and strong nation. They have several national programs that focus on unity and community. One of them is called "Umuganda", where once a month each village does some sort of community service work together. On the last Saturday of May, I got up early and worked in a community garden in the village that our hostel was in. Everyone was pitching in, even the elderly grandparents. The Rwandan people are truly resilient, kind, and generous; I am so privileged to have spent a month surrounded by some of the greatest people I will ever meet.
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photos by Timothy Li