All the Team with shirts given by the School
Our idea of what it would be like volunteering in Rwanda was similar to our first view of Kigali from the air – rather foggy! But like the sky above the runway, things soon became clear as we settled into a happy month teaching English in Bugarama, a small town in the SW corner of Rwanda.
Before we left England, seasoned Hands Around the World volunteers told us that the most rewarding aspect of the volunteering experience would be forming relationships with the people we would meet. As I look back now on our time in Rwanda, I have to agree. I think of:
Thierry with his big grin and black homburg hat, festooned with our multiple cameras, enthusiastically taking pictures of and for us all while simultaneously talking on his mobile phone!
Carpophole with his deep voice (a gentle giant), showing us the books he looks after in Muko School library (meagre by European standards but a source of great pride to him).
Wellars with his quiet smile, meticulously translating a Kinyarwanda sermon for us during a 3.5 hour church service. (I will remember those five key points he translated long after most English sermons have faded from memory)
Jean and his wife with their amazing hospitality, welcoming us into their home to meet their gorgeous toddler twin girls and presenting us with lovely matching outfits - made by a local tailor to measurements cunningly obtained via a note from an anonymous well wisher (alias Jean)!
Our students (experienced teachers themselves), patiently welcoming our efforts to learn their names. Always enthusiastic ... lively ... keeping us on our toes. “Teacher, you told us meals in English are called ‘lunch and supper’, but here on my phone Google says they can be ‘dinner’ and ‘tea’.” Oops, Felix, you’re right - hasty explanation needed!
Georgine and Japhet, heads of Muko and Mihabura Schools – hospitable, generous, humbling us with their welcome and appreciation of our efforts
Joel, Esther, Rehema, Rachel, Louise – and others too many to mention (working with fellow volunteers Dennis and Myfanwy to improve the school buildings) - our lunchtime companions, singing with us in an impromptu choir, playing games and sports with us, and laughing kindly at our unsuccessful attempts to walk with a bowl on our head... something they manage with effortless grace
Children ... everywhere - eager, laughing, grabbing our hands and then running away, startled by their own boldness. The parents too that we met in the market or on the streets of Bugarama – their initial shyness of the “muzungu” (white person) replaced with a beaming smile when I greeted them in my (albeit scanty) Kinyarwanda.
I loved Rwanda – its beautiful scenery, sunshine, interesting culture. But most of all, I loved the Rwandan people. They have very few of the things we would consider essential for a good life in material terms, but they have a large measure of warmth, friendliness, good humour and love that means they find their way very quickly into your heart. Why was I feeling tearful singing a song at church back in England, I wondered. Oh yes, I know ... it’s because the last time I sang that song it was in a dusty classroom in a far-off little African town with people who have become my friends. And I miss them!
What can I add when my wife has already said it all?
A few thoughts about the experience do occur to me.
The first is - given that we were only there for a month - how little we were able to contribute to the development of Rwanda. It is true that we probably improved our students’ English slightly and probably, with that, their appreciation of the mindset of somewhat elderly English folk! However that was as nothing compared with what I learned of my own faith, philosophy and personality from the act of giving rather than receiving.
Although I have visited several African countries, this was the first time that I actually spent my days in their homes and schools, living and working alongside their citizens and children, getting to know them. I cannot pretend that this makes me some sort of expert on the subject but what it did do was to give me a new viewpoint from which I could observe my native land and its history, economy and its people in a new light.
I came back to the UK via Heathrow to find myself in the middle of the nation where few people actually spoke to one another or looked one another in the eye, let alone smiled. Many of them looked very overweight and inactive, a sure sign of malnourishment if ever there was one! There was not a single child playing in the streets. Perhaps it was too cold for them although the sun was shining and I was wearing the same clothes as I had in Africa? I bought a newspaper to read on the journey home. Although this was one of the wealthiest and supposedly “advanced” countries in the world, almost every article seemed to be about poverty, inadequate housing, medical care, inadequate education or refugees. How much we could all learn in a few weeks in Bugarama!
It's hard to say Goodbye!