‘They walk straight past us’

Rwanda Reflections #3 - ‘They walk straight past us’


Through this series of blog posts, I am seeking to process another profound experience - visiting Rwanda for the fourth time. I am also hoping to raise awareness of the educational needs of this country – particularly in the regional rural schools. And I am inviting you to join SCIL (the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning) as we plan an international summit – a collision of minds, to take place in the stunning foothills of the Volcanoes NP, home to the mountain gorillas: scil.com.au/rwanda


One of the most moving experiences of my life has been to go for a stroll around the fields of Kinigi - the fields and undulating lower hills that surround the Volcanoes National Park. I have now visited this area three times. It is an amazing walk. I have walked there before with a few friends and colleagues - modern day ‘pied pipers’. On every occasion, we have been progressively joined by dozens of little feet walking alongside us – often barefoot. Not aggressive, nor assertive - just joining us. In a clearing we stop and we offer to play – word games, song games, action games – anything we can recall as once-primary teachers.  At our request they sing their national anthem – a melodic song known by all and sung with pride. During the second trip we finished up playing soccer with the local lads in a clearing. It was a national holiday.


These fields appear to the outsider as serenely calm – but the reality would be that they are a place of constant struggle for survival. The houses dotted over the countryside are mud huts. The kitchens are most often separate - commonly constructed out of eucalypt leaves and branches. I take note of the small ‘sentry-box’ sized mud brick latrines. How do they cope? How do they keep well? With every question asked, I have lots more in my head. How do 9 people live in a single room dwelling? Some questions are best left unasked. I don’t see many girls. A few are around – but they are younger. Most likely their older sisters are tilling the fields or shelling the bean pods. Work today for tonight’s meal. Repeat that tomorrow. Repeat that the next day.


‘They walk straight past us’

We talk in a constantly changing pattern of conversations. They are all eager for a turn. A comment made by a young man, Honore, hits home: “people come to see the gorillas; they visit them, then they walk straight past us. You have come back to see us …” These young people are perceptive. They are also highly appreciative. They don’t resent the constant trickle of tourists, but they certainly appreciate people who have come to visit them. We chat. Honore loves studying biology and chemistry. He attends a school in Musanze. That must mean a ride every day in the crammed white mini buses. How does he pay for that? I offer to email him to help his English language skills. Then another small comment strikes home: “You offer your email to us first. That is different. Others only take ours, but don’t give us theirs.” Honore keeps chatting, not missing a beat. I inwardly smile as I recognize that he is taking every second available to practise his English. He knows that this is a great way to achieve that goal. Then he might be a better doctor, a better Principal, a better scientist.


Softly spoken Christian – ‘we are very poor’

I observe that Honore already has the welfare of others in his sights. He clearly sees a role in mentoring his younger field friends in English - friends such as Christian and Eric. I met Christian two trips ago. Christian, then 14, approached me on the first trip. He wanted to say hello. He was not inappropriate. He told me about his family. I asked him whether he went to school. He was in Primary 5. I didn’t have any contact with him after that first chance meeting. The second time I went to the area, he recognized me from across the fields. I asked him how school was. He was now in Primary 6. He told me he has to pass the national exam in order to get to secondary school. He doesn’t know whether will achieve that yet. I ask him about the future. What does he want to do? He had heard of a boarding school for secondary about 10 kilometres away. He had never been there. But he knew it would be an opportunity. He clearly dreams of this. (Maybe I can make a difference?) We exchanged email addresses. (Where would he go to send an email? I have no idea.) I see no electricity. His school doesn’t have computers. I see nothing but subsistence farming. He rushed off saying he wanted to give me something. He came back with a beautiful gift - a mountain gorilla carved out of jacaranda timber. I look at it every day.


First time - visitor; second time - friend; third time - family

I received two emails during the six months between visits. (How on earth did he manage to do that?) He asks if I am coming back. I hesitantly say yes. I don’t want to unsettle him or give false hope. I tell him we would be back that Saturday morning, early January 2012. He was right where he said he would be near the car park. He was there with dozens of others, mainly boys or young lads. No doubt word had spread within the community that the ‘mzungu’ people (white people) were coming again. He smiles. We start walking through the fields again. I don’t want to unsettle him. I sense that he would like me to come to his home, to meet his family. I have no idea what I am walking into. He generously steps back when his field friends step up to take their turn to chat and use their broken English. I ask each one to tell me what they want to do. Who they want to be? There are lots of aspirational doctors and a few teachers. “I want to help people.”


We finish up climbing the roughly cobbled road to his home. His home measures about 2.5 meters by 4 metres, I’d say at a rough guess. Nine people live in it. His parents. They must have a genocide story - everyone older than 17 does. (I’ll leave that to another time.) He is one of six. His elder brother is married and he lives in the home with his wife too, hence the nine. We are welcomed and sit down between the mud hut and the kitchen outpost constructed from dried eucalypt branches. Each day is spent in the small rock strewn hillside allotment. Each day is about getting the food for the next. Christian’s little sister looks on from a rocky ‘box seat’ position. We are joined by 30, maybe 40, soon 50 other children. My friend and social protector, Banner is nearby. Barack and Brian are there also. They can translate. Barack has just finished Senior 6 and wants to do Computer Science. Brian is in Senior 5 at the boarding school and term has not yet recommenced. Brian is studying hard so he can become a doctor. He lives in Kinigi too. I don’t know where this story will end. But it will continue, I know.


What can I do that might change the life circumstances of these children? What I can do to show them that the world has not forgotten them. Their resilience, aspiration and respect are phenomenal. What do I understand about poverty cycles? How do we break it? Why do I have so much (opportunity and possessions) and they so little? What am I doing with my circumstance?


Join us

On 24th, 25th and 26th May, 2012, SCIL (Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning) is holding a summit as a starting point to do something. We are going to locate it in this region. We are going to take people to these places - the fields, the homes, the schools. We are going to take people to join our journey. We are hoping for a collision of minds to find ways to construct a different future for these children. We have no other agenda. We are hoping you will join us:

W scil.com.au/rwanda

T @scil #rw12 

E aknock@scil.nsw.edu.au