Students learn about service in Rwanda

Julia Goldberg and Talia Winiarsky

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Sometimes a journey starts with a single step; this summer, a journey to Rwanda started with a single Instagram post.

When Dean of the Class of 2023 Chidi Asoluka posted a picture from his travels in Capetown last summer, a friend of his commented under the photo, reaching out to ask if Asoluka had ever been to Rwanda. His friend suggested that he learn more about an organization there, which he thought Asoluka would find interesting. Asoluka replied, saying that maybe in the future he’d look them up, but that was all, he said.

Then, this past year, Dakota Stennett-Neris ‘19 proposed an idea for a summer program to Africa to Head of School Thomas Kelly, who passed the idea onto Asoluka and Computer Science Teacher Danah Screen, Asoluka said.

“I immediately thought of the Instagram post, and I went back to it and contacted my friend, asking for the contact information. As soon as I got on the phone with Victoria [Grubbs], [one of the] founders of the organization, Turi Kumwe, I knew it would be a good match,” he said. “After that, Ms. Screen and I worked on developing some sort of program together. We created a draft, proposed it to Dr. Kelly, and the rest is history.”

At the center of the experience was the partnership with Turi Kumwe, Asoluka said. Every summer they hold a camp for kids in a neighboring area, teaching activities such as sports and music. The camp is held at a former orphanage, which is now a community space. Every student from the school partnered with a teacher from the summer camp to teach a single class.

“I don’t think it’s controversial to say the education [in America] about the continent of Africa is very narrow,” Asoluka said. “Because of our education, Americans have a skewed understanding; there’s no real association with Africa and any type of modernism or advancements,” he said.

“As an African, I thought it was important to expose students to the African way of life, beyond just ‘hey, we’re going to Africa to do community service and look at elephants.’ It’s always been my dream to develop a different type of African program centered around the everyday life of people.”

However, Asoluka was not sure if students would express interest in the program, he said. Shortly after Dr. Kelly approved the trip, Asoluka sent out an email to the class of 2020 explaining the trip and asking anyone interested to respond.

“We had no idea if any kids would sign up,” Asoluka said, “but we just did it, and a lot of kids responded, so it was a great first step.”

A couple of weeks later, there was an information session held for anyone interested. Grubbs was living in New York at the time, and so she was fortunately available to come to the meeting to talk about her organization and what the program would look like, Asoluka said. Applications then opened, but to avoid any possible bias, Grubbs chose who would attend, he said.

The information session sparked Alena Underwood’s (12) interest in the trip, she said. “We were told that if we got into the program, we would get to teach classes at a summer camp for kids in Kigali, Rwanda, and I was hooked right then and there,” she said. “In addition, I love service learning. I felt like this combined the best of both worlds.”

Underwood taught a class about choir and songwriting, and on the last day, her students performed songs for their families, Underwood said.

“Seeing them so excited to show their friends and parents what they had learned was totally a highlight for me,” Underwood said. She also had the opportunity to see what the other classes had been learning during the same time, which she enjoyed, she said.

One of her most cherished memories, though, came much earlier on in the trip, Underwood said. On “Friendday,” the day before the camp started, the students met the campers for the first time.

“Kids from the town would come to the campsite and there were games, face-painting, music, and dancing,” she said. “At first I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect, but after literally three minutes, I had four different kids holding my hands, smiling at me, and asking me my name and where I was from.”

Amiya Mehrotra (12) viewed this trip as an opportunity to step out of her comfort zone and improve her teaching skills as she is interested in education and teaching, she said. During the trip, she taught English and TOEFL (English proficiency exam) classes at the summer camp for two weeks.

“Considering that I was teaching at a summer camp, I didn’t expect the students to be as enthusiastic about the class as they were, but they came in every day with smiles on their faces and an abundance of positive energy, which I really appreciated,” Mehrotra said. Because lesson plans often turned out to be more difficult than she had envisioned, Mehrotra learned to think on her feet and adapt the way she taught. She also discovered how essential it was to vary the method in which she conveyed information in order to retain the students’ attention, she said.

While Mehrotra’s students were learning about English, Jayla Thomas (12) taught her class about song production, Asoluka said. Once the class finished their song, Asoluka went to hear it, he said.

“They were rapping in Kinyarwanda, so I didn’t know what they were saying, but in the middle of it I heard Jayla’s name in the rap,” Asoluka said. “It showed me that we were in this together, that this wasn’t a top-down experience, which I think service can often feel like,” he said.

Mika Asfaw (12) taught his students, ages nine to 17, piano in the mornings, and a different set of students, ages eight to 10, robotics in the afternoon with Screen, he said.

The students had ample supplies because the school’s students brought keyboards with them to Rwanda, Asfaw said. Despite the fact that some of the younger students didn’t speak English as well as the older students, music is a universal language, so he didn’t have many problems when teaching, he said. Asfaw would demonstrate how to create music using the piano, and the students would copy him, he said.

“We didn’t even have tables for the pianos––we had to put them on the chairs––but I could see the students grow as they learned,” he said.

On the weekends, the group went on excursions, visiting sites such as the King’s Palace, learning about the country’s history at the Genocide Museum, and experiencing cultural events such as weddings, Mehrotra said. The wedding was a friend of Christy Weber’s, who was another co-founder of Turi Kumwe, Mehrotra said.

“When we went to the Genocide Memorial Center and learned about the Rwandan Genocide in depth, the six of us all felt comfortable leaning on each other when stressed, saddened, or angry,” Underwood said. “After Rwanda’s genocide, people united and chose to move forward together for the betterment of Rwanda. Seeing how everyone takes care of each other is something magical that I’ve never seen before.”

“Rwanda had 100 days of genocide, but yet they found a way to reconcile the country, to turn it into a hub of innovation and positivity,” Asoluka said. The country is very clean, and they’ve even banned plastic bags, he said.

“To think that that happened on the back of probably the darkest thing that could happen in humanity––the killing of other human beings over an extended period of time for absolutely no reason other than what they look like––it’s a true marker of what humans can do when empowered by love. The world needs to be educated on that.”

Underwood’s greatest takeaway from the trip was the value of community, she said. “Just by being there for three weeks, I really felt that everyone in Rwanda truly cared about everyone within their community,” Underwood said. “Especially coming from NYC, seeing such a connected community really resonated with me. I learned that even strangers have a connection just by being on this earth together. Seeing that principle in action was truly moving.”

Asfaw was impacted by the kindness of the Rwandan people that he met and hopes that he can try to make the school culture more inclusive, he said. “At Horace Mann, sometimes it feels like a pseudo-community. We all go to the same school, but we aren’t actually together.”

On his first day in Rwanda, Asfaw interacted with merchants in a market, and three weeks later, some of the merchants still remembered him by name, he said. He was shocked by their abundance of friendliness compared to the United States, he said.

“I took away that as an educator, we need to do more to push young people out of the routine of the student life,” Asoluka said. “The trip made me realize that if you’re able to transcend that robotic nature of education, and turn it into a bigger moment, I really think you can change lives; you can make education more immediate, more urgent, and more meaningful