In their own words: Students reflect on journey to Rwanda

By Francine Navarro, Sarah Ellam and Kaitlin Rocha
October 10, 2013

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RwandaIllustration 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 – Francine Navarro, Sarah Ellam and Kaitlin Rocha – to reflect on that trip. Here’s what they had to say, in part:

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Rwanda1Special to Western News

By Francine Navarro

My most vivid memories exist in my mind as vignettes – individual moments that, however grand or fleeting, bring to light the complexities of volunteerism, privilege and development. For me, this community service-learning opportunity was more than just about what we set out to accomplish; it was about the people who taught me the value of perseverance and trust.

Wherever we went, I crossed paths with individuals who demonstrated the will to survive, even in the smallest of gestures. I saw perseverance in the students who were careful not to take their education for granted. I saw it in the teachers who, in spite of overcrowded classrooms, health concerns and persistent financial struggles, always gave it their all. And I will never forget the young girl who carried a jerry can filled with water on her back as she walked up one of the many steep hills that make up Rwanda’s landscape.      

As volunteers, we confronted challenges in our placements that called us to persevere everyday.

There was no such thing as a quiet or slow morning for the five of us teaching English at Gisimba Memorial Centre. Starting at 8:30 a.m., we were surrounded by the laughter, cries and animated voices of children as young as 2. Admittedly, I was not experienced working with young kids, and on most days, I felt physically and mentally overwhelmed by the task of teaching 39 students who typically had more energy than I did – even after drinking a cup of bold Rwandan coffee.

But as we reached our second week at Gisimba, I learned to relish the life that filled every inch of the schoolyard: the sound of students counting at the top of their lungs, the stomping of feet as they popped in and out of the classroom on their own accord and their constant cries for “Teach-ah!” made this trip all the more unique from my other volunteer experiences in Canada and overseas. Soon, the things that wore me out became sources of energy, and as my students’ eyes widened when they saw the worksheets and posters I drew for them, I was determined to give them as much as I could with the time and resources I had. 

After spending the morning on our toes, the Gisimba crew got time to unwind with the kids and teenagers living in the orphanage located just behind the nursery school. I discovered their remarkable ability to trust during our first afternoon as volunteers. As we toured the art room, I felt a small, smooth hand slip gently into mine. It belonged to a 9-year-old girl named Jeannine, who rarely uttered more than a whisper, but remained by my side until we were picked up at 4 p.m. She was my first friend at the orphanage and among the people I couldn’t bear to part with on our last day of volunteering.

This sense of trust extended both ways. As we grew closer, we engaged in open conversations about our communities and ourselves. By the end of our trip, the teachers and youth of Gisimba Memorial Centre embraced us into their family – one that continued to show us unyielding support and compassion long after we left Rwanda.

I was given the opportunity to create a short, amateur documentary about our work and travels. The task turned out to be an unexpected blessing when I returned to Canada. As I edited footage, I was able to see the faces of the people I missed the most and introduce them to my friends and family. However, there were many more encounters that went undocumented but were nevertheless meaningful. The sight of blood stains on a wall in the Nyamata Genocide Memorial Site, young boys fighting over a loaf of bread on the streets of Gisenyi, and my first glimpse of an actual refugee camp reminded me to keep a grounded perspective of where we were and the work we set out to accomplish. 

I can’t say the trip was a perfect experience, but it was certainly an incredible one. I am grateful for every heartwarming and heartbreaking instance that taught me more than I had anticipated.

Francine Navarro is a student in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

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Rwanda2Specail to Western News

By Sarah Ellam

Rwanda, almost more than any other African country, falls victim to a ‘single story.’

Haunted by a tragedy that occurred there 19 years ago, it was the first thing anyone could speak about when they discovered my plans to travel. “Wait, isn’t there a genocide there or something?” people asked, perplexed as to why anyone would want to travel to such a broken, violent country. I refused to let these kinds of naive questions darken my expectations for Rwanda.

Although I had no idea what Rwanda was going to be like, my expectations for this trip were still immense, and it did not disappoint.


Our group was split between Gisimba Memorial Centre and the Centre Marembo, a youth-centred NGO working with young people in Kigali who have been orphaned, neglected, abused or who live in difficult circumstances. Most days we would teach English, play games and participate in group discussions with the youth. We were fortunate enough at Marembo to be involved in the community as well.

 My most cherished memories are of our work with Umugongo House and Abatuje House. These are the current initiatives set up through Marembo to help house, feed and educate vulnerable youth within the community.

My strongest connection to these projects was with Abatuje House. This shelter housed 12 girls who had lived through more tragedy than I can possibly wrap my head around. They were incredibly strong and immensely courageous.

These girls were such a shining example of resilience and hope. Our time spent there was some of the most rewarding because we got to share a few hours of carefree fun with some of the young girls that deserved it most in the world.

Our first visit was discouragingly silent. We were overwhelmed by a serious language barrier, and unable to move beyond the devastating past these girls carried with them. The most incredible part of my trip to Rwanda was watching how as a group we were able to overcome both of these and form connections in spite of our initial apprehensions. 

Our final afternoon was completely opposite to our first visit. These weren’t vulnerable girls anymore, and we weren’t simply visiting ‘Muzungus’ (white people); these were friends. I would hope that by connecting with these girls we were able to have even a small impact on their lives, because I know they completely changed mine.

At the end of my trip, it came full circle to the same issue of the single story.

Arriving home people would innocently ask, “How was Africa?”

At first it didn’t bother me. However, I realized soon after that in using the term ‘Africa’ so loosely it provided them with an easy, familiar picture in their head they were comfortable with. The same single story from the movies, TV ads and news; a hot, exotic, far-away place plagued by chaos and corruption.

This limited frame, while not completely untrue, was still far from doing the incredible country of Rwanda justice. When speaking on my experiences abroad, I am careful not to use the word Africa, because I didn't go to ‘Africa,’ I went to Rwanda.

There are 55 countries in Africa, all of which have their own independent languages, cultures and ways of life. It would be incredibly naive for me to go to Rwanda and say I've experienced Africa. African countries might share the same continent, but they are as diverse as the people that inhabit them. 

I boarded flight 229 to Kigali without even the slightest idea of awaited me upon arrival; what I found was a country of incredibly resilient, proud, and most importantly, happy people with a unwavering hope for the future ahead of them.

Sarah Ellam is a student in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

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Rwanda3Special to Western News

By Kaitlin Rocha

My heart was captured and my life was impacted for the better in Rwanda.

Reading and learning about Rwanda was brought to life through the human experience of this international service-learning project. This was not something I could have learned in a textbook or in the classroom.

I was placed at Gisimba Memorial Centre’s (GMC) school and adjoining orphanage. I spent the mornings teaching English to 45 children ages 2-4 years old. In the afternoons, I would spend time interacting with the people of the orphanage.

Developed countries like Canada have a lot to learn from a place like Rwanda. Beyond the tragedies of the genocide and beyond the poverty, the people of Rwanda are human beings who love the very essence of life, and who were not defeated by sadness, but resilient to it. During my placement at GMC, I discovered the true meaning of happiness.

The teachers inspired me more with each day with their abundance of happiness, energy and passion for their work and the children. The people at the orphanage were loved by one another and treated each other as one big family; they brought happiness to each other. It was a relaxed, positive, friendly, and high-energy atmosphere, where we had the opportunity to interact and connect with many people. Our connections grew at GMC, friendships developed and I began to see my peers more as mentors. 

It was not realistic to think I was going to be able to create huge change in this short amount of time, or give them as much as they were giving me, but what I could do was share as much as I could, connect with as many people, and try to impact their lives in some way.

Sharing culture, interacting with the teachers and children of the school, and people of the orphanage, getting to know their stories, and trying to impact their lives would make a difference. I made posters and visual aids to help with teaching. I sang songs and came up with creative activities to help teach various concepts. In the afternoons at the orphanage, some larger group activities were organized such as limbo, the human knot, and an art day. I also tried to reach out to as many of the people as possible.

The youth and young adults of the orphanage taught me traditional dancing, gave me Kinyarwanda lessons while I taught them English. We painted our nails; listened to music and much more.  I impacted as many lives as I could during my time there, we shared culture, we blurred the boundaries between cultures, we explored emotions, and I formed some of the most heart-felt friendships I have had in my lifetime.

The international service-learning project really opened up my eyes to a bigger world. It reminded me of how much I have yet to learn about the world around me.

I witnessed the simplicity of life with minimal material items, and an abundance of pure and genuine qualities and emotions. I heard the laughter of children playing games with sticks and chasing a moving tire; the love of children as they dusted the dirt off the shoes of a friend or shared the food they were given with an orphan who did not have any.

I experienced the commitment of teachers working to better the children, the trust the children had in us as we were called their teachers and their friends, the kindness that every member of GMC showed us as they welcomed us every morning and afternoon, the selfless giving of the teachers and students of the school and people of the orphanage as they gave the one bracelet on their own hand to me as a gesture of appreciation.

I will carry these memoires with me wherever I go, and I will strive to emulate the people of GMC in my life.

Kaitlin Rocha is a student at Brescia University College.























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