Class provides a new outlook on the world

By Jason Winders, Western News

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.

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By Anita Dabirzadeh

While my classmates and I have been taught to re-evaluate the notion of individualism and start analyzing problems as social issues, not many of us can truly say we have had first-hand experience interacting with communities dealing with problems of violence, social inequity and poverty. It was for this reason I applied to be a part of this course.

I participated in Western’s Alternative Spring Break program twice. The lessons in cross-cultural communication that taught me were truly transformative in my academic and my personal life. I hoped this course would also give me the opportunity to entrench myself in a new culture and way of living while also allowing me to provide some service to the communities we would be working with.

I knew this experience would be one I would carry with me for years to come. What I did not prepare for, however, was how this course would challenge me in ways I never thought possible. It pushed me to see both global development and my field of study in a completely new perspective.

Choosing to embark on this experience was the bravest, and most physically and emotionally challenging thing I have ever done. It was also the most rewarding. Reflecting back, I can see how the obstacles my team faced were vital to our success and taught us all lessons for how to engage with new communities in the future.

Upon arriving in Kigali, three other students and myself received our placement at Centre Marembo, a non-governmental organization that works to empower and reintegrate young women and girls who have been the victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. There, we met Nicolette, the director and cofounder of the centre. I immediately saw the passion and love that she had for this cause and for the children she supported. Throughout the five weeks I spent working with her, the incredible staff and children at the centre, I learned more about what it means to work in a global setting than I did in three years of university.

We left a lasting mark on the centre, but even more remarkable, however, was the mark the centre left on us. To this day, it surprises me to think we managed to accomplish all of this while struggling with a big language barrier and with less than optimal resources. At the end of each day, when my classmates and I gathered for dinner, I could not believe we had been able to accomplish so much in just 10 hours. The sheer breadth of it absolutely amazed me. I believe it was entirely due to the inspiration we got from our role models at the centre and in Rwanda.

The work our team managed to accomplish, along with the help of our local partners, showed anything can be accomplished if we set our minds to it. I hope to carry this tenacity and passion with me for the rest of my life and I am counting down the days until I can return.

Anita Dabirzadeh is a fourth-year student in Health Sciences.

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By Avery Lafortune

During this amazing course, we learned all about Rwanda, a country of which I had little prior knowledge. We discussed its colonial history, the events of the 1994 genocide and the resilience of the people who have worked to rebuild the country since. We learned about history, culture, health care and politics and what it means to take part in community service-learning.

Those Monday nights were enjoyable and interesting.

But it wasn’t until we reached Rwanda that I realized just how beneficial it was to be able to look around and understand what I was seeing within the context. The in-class component truly enhanced the experiential learning. That solid foundation gave us the knowledge we needed to integrate so quickly and operate in such a different environment.

I had never stepped foot on the African continent. Now, I know I was seriously missing out.

Rwanda is breathtaking. Known as ‘The Land of A Thousand Hills,’ the roads wind throughout the countryside without any expanse of flatness to be seen. The sky is clear blue and days are almost always sunny. Farmland, forests and cities are built right into the hillside. You know that feeling when your heart is just so full, it’s like you can’t contain it? I felt that all the time as we drove around the country.

It’s a feeling you never get used to and it never gets old.

Once at our destination, we worked with three different organizations: Caritas, Les Enfants de Dieu and Centre Marembo. Each worked toward rehabilitating children who have lived on the streets by providing them with a safe and educational environment and supporting them when they reintegrate into society (whether it be the school system or a vocation).

Despite similar goals, each centre provided different experiences to our team members.

I was placed at Caritas, a centre that assists boys and girls ranging from 5-14 years old. Caritas provides daily programming consisting of academic, creative and recreational endeavours. My team taught English and math classes and help with crafts, games and sports. The children and social workers were an absolute joy to work with.

We worked at our placements during the week while the weekends were used for traveling around Rwanda and engaging in cultural experiences. We went to amazing museums, local art galleries and powerful genocide memorials. We visited Kimironko market and bought strings of paper beads and colourful patterned fabrics. We swam in Lake Kivu and saw zebras and giraffes in Akagera National Park. I ate my way through the Nakumatt bakery and tried fresh sugar cane for the first time.

Our time in Rwanda flew by. Our goodbyes were tearful because we truly loved it there. When I look back on my experience, I am struck with just how much I learned. Of all the classes I have taken at Western, I already know this will be the one I will remember most. It is the best type of education that gives you the opportunity to apply classroom theory to hands-on adventure.

Avery Nicole Lafortune is a third-year student enrolled in Western’s School for the Advanced Studies in Arts and Humanities.

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By Brooke Porter

Rwanda is peaceful, loving, bright and warm. The streets are speckled with things we in the West would think to be odd – construction workers passed out on the grass for 2 p.m. naps, shards of glass used for protective wire, men in business suits in the backseat of trucks. Deep green hills line every horizon. Everything is slow; silence is comfortable.

My team of three students was placed at Les Enfants de Dieu, a community centre that takes in boys aged 7-18 years from the streets and focuses on mental, physical and spiritual rehabilitation. Our days were spent half-teaching, half-playing and obsessively practicing Kinyarwanda to circumvent the slowly dissolving language barrier.

Any happiness I experienced during my time in Rwanda could not possibly have surmised from feeling charitable – if anything I was plagued by an incessant inability to do enough, or give enough, of myself to the children at the center. Our reports and lessons paled against what they taught us. I taught fractions. The children taught me how to be brave, address the pain of my friends, not hide behind constructed femininity and, ultimately, how to say goodbye.

How do you repay someone for that? Well, maybe you don’t have to. Human nurturing is symbiotic – I will never know what I did for those boys; they will certainly never know what they did for me.

Professor Boyi’s intimate connection with Rwanda separated us from tourists. Toward the end of our trip, he took us to a genocide memorial in a small town north of Kigali. The guide spoke in hushed English. Our sandals hovered over matches, stillborn in time, used to burn alive 5,000 Tutsis, mainly women and children. Schoolbooks that children had fled with are still there piled open, covered with dust and full of stains of blood. They did not wash the blood from the walls. While we shuddered, cried, young children bicycled by and giggled at each other on the road.

After our visit at the Genocide Memorial of Ntarama, we met with one of the three women who survived the particular massacre at this church. Angelique had golden eyes and high cheekbones and owned a farm up the road. At the end of her story, she told us, in Kinyarwanda, “Love each other no matter what; and always seek the truth.” Angelique lost her husband, her children and other members of her family during the genocide. She can now put on a beautiful smile that hides nine deep machete scars and teaches the world how to love one another.

Genuine education is principally concerned with truth. In Rwanda, I barely synthesized the paradise and hospitality we encountered with the brutal images of 20 years prior. I still struggle to do so. For my team, the truth about Rwanda exists most purely in the everyday interactions we were able to experience.

Rwanda is infinitely more than what happened in 1994. While the past lives on in subtle hues, the future of a politically progressive country that promotes health, education, women and children, reconciliation and reconstruction, to name just a few, deserves attention. Rwanda taught me lifetime lessons about how to be wise and more human, how to value other human beings.

Brooke Porter is a fourth-year student in English and Writing Studies, pursuing a minor in Transitional Justice and Post-conflict Reconstruction.

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By Clarisse Fata

The five weeks I spent in Rwanda were a life-changing learning experience I will never forget.

One of the main aspects of this course is experiential learning, or, more specifically, international service learning. In other words, it required students to travel to the country of study.

So, although we came to Rwanda offering our knowledge, skill and service, we ended up benefitting in many ways. The experiences I gained through international service learning in Rwanda directly affected the ways in which I grew mentally and emotionally throughout the process. Experiential learning helped me to become more open-minded, curious, passionate and respectful of other cultures.

Each and every day I spent in Rwanda, I found myself in situations that challenged me in the most amazing ways and influenced my growth as a person. Being immersed in a new culture and surrounded by people who have a completely different way of life was difficult. However, from the beginning of the trip, it was evident I would be doing things I never thought I could do, like teaching English to 40 children who speak a completely different language. More so than ever before, I needed to be outgoing and open-minded.

During my time at Les Enfants de Dieu, I noticed a drastic change in my attitude. I learned Kinya-Rwanda and really started to connect with the boys on a deeper level. Their stories, personalities and lifestyles intrigued me, making me want to learn more about them.

However, it was frustrating at times to be continuously pushed out of my comfort zone. There were many occasions when I wouldn’t know what to do or say, that forced me to grow as a person, teacher, student and friend. I became more confident and, toward the end of the five weeks, I was able to jump at new opportunities without hesitation. I was saying, doing and thinking things I hadn’t even known were in my mental capacity.

Being submerged in a new culture, I ended up learning a new language, making amazing friends and unforgettable memories, and growing emotionally, mentally and spiritually. My happiness at Les Enfants de Dieu allowed me to positively inspire and teach the students. It also gave me the chance to better understand the students who shared this journey with me and appreciate the strong relationships we developed with one another. It helped me progress as a student, and opened my mind as a global citizen.

Although I was the teacher in the classroom, by the end of the trip, the boys of Les Enfants de Dieu had taught me so much more. They taught me how to work hard, love unconditionally and connect with other people on the most fundamental level; they taught me what ubuntu (human interconnectedness) is all about.

Words can’t even begin to explain what the Land of a Thousand Hills, and, more specifically, Les Enfants de Dieu, means to me. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think of the friends, smiles, laughs and culture of this immaculately beautiful place on the other side of the world. The more I learned about Rwanda, the boys at Les Enfants de Dieu, my fellow peers, and myself, the more I experienced the reciprocal nature of service learning.

My contribution to the community was just as beneficial as the experiences I gained. Even though our trip to Rwanda only lasted for little over a month, by the end, I didn’t want to leave. Les Enfants de Dieu became my home; the boys became my family; and I had 11 amazing friends to share it all with. I will be forever grateful to Western for offering me this unique learning opportunity.

Clarisse Fata is fourth-year student in Health Sciences.