What Rwanda taught me

Alena Underwood

Here’s a little fun fact about me: I’m really bad at checking my emails. So, when Mr. Asoluka sent information to my class grade about an upcoming trip to Kigali, Rwanda, I was the one who almost missed it. I can confidently say that this trip changed my life for the better. Thinking back on it, the thought of nearly having missed out on it because I don’t regularly open First Class gives me the chills. I may now regularly check my email… maybe.

During this trip, six Horace Mann students (including a recent graduate), Ms. Screen, Mr. Asoluka, and I worked at a summer camp called Turi Kumwe which translates to “we are together.” On a daily basis, we each taught two 2.5 hour classes for students ranging from ages 6 to 20 years old (classes such as robotics, soccer, English, dance, and art). On the last day of camp, there was a giant performance showcase for the campers’ families where each class performed something that they had learned during their two-week session at Turi Kumwe. Since I taught choir and songwriting, my students performed songs that they had either written or were taught to sing. But regardless of what they may have learned, I feel as if I actually learned equally, if not more, from them and this embodies the incredible and unforgettable opportunity of being with the people of Rwanda.

The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994. After all the tragedy and loss of life that occurred, the Rwandan people came together and choose to move forward in order to make Rwanda a better place for all. Because the genocide was so recent, its effects are still present and very evident. There was one, likely unintended, result of the genocide that moved me the most and will resonate with me for as long as I live. Because the Rwandan people united in an effort to ensure that history would not repeat itself, their sense of community is profound- stronger than anything I’ve ever seen before. People there take care of one another whether they are a family member or a complete stranger.

As an American (especially a New Yorker), I anticipated people to be distant, and that I would have been expected to initiate all conversations; however this couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Within minutes of being in the camp, I had at least four children holding my hands, smiling at me, trying to introduce themselves, and teaching me how to join their play games. Even with the language barrier, they were insistent on making a connection – on bringing me into their community, their fold.

This sense of community, a sense of authentic belonging, of being “a people,” is amazing given the roots of the genocide. This feeling of being one is something that is sorely missing in America. Rwandans understand the importance of creating oneness rather than division. I am immensely grateful that I was able to go on this trip with Horace Mann and see such an extraordinary example of togetherness and solidarity in an incredibly beautiful country. We, in the United States, could learn tremendously from their actions.

Of the many things that venturing on this trip taught me, the most important thing was the significance of community. In NYC, each of us tends to be in our own little bubble and our sense of “community” is usually limited to immediate family and peers. In Rwanda, I learned and adopted the principle that even strangers can have a connection just by being human and on this earth together. Being in Rwanda and experiencing that every day changed my perspective, and returning home was definitely difficult. To come back to the US and no longer feel what I had internalized on a daily basis for close to three weeks, to no longer sense that belongingness was tough and grueling- even more than the 22-hour travel back to JFK airport.

I left Rwanda wishing that the same perception of community could manifest itself here in the United States, in my home. I hope that our individualized mindset changes so that we learn to properly value one another. I know that it probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but I can only aspire to make it my work going forward so that our future generations unite even if it’s only a fraction of what the Rwandan people have done.