Independent Study Project: YAY RWANDA!


Culture & History


RWANDA! This country is the densest populated country in all of Africa and shows a tremendous positive trajectory for growth for the future. Kigali, the capital city, leads the technology revolution in Africa and teachers are hoping to incorporate technology very soon into lessons! The life expectancy of Rwandans has risen by over ten years in the past decade, an incredible fact that marks this country as one of the top five most improved country in the world since 2000 (Annobil). President Paul Kagame, who took peaceful presidency after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, has implemented wondrous changes this country. He was first elected as President in Rwanda’s multiparty elections in 2003 and was re-elected for a seven year term in 2010 with 93-95% of the vote (Brittanica)! President Kagame will run for re-election in 2017, and then has the option of running for two more five-year terms each thereafter (Guardian). Under the leadership of President Kagame and the hard-working spirit of its people, Rwanda shines as a beacon of optimism for future endeavors, economic and environmental sustainability, and improved quality of life for all of its united citizens.



Awesome facts about Rwanda:

  • Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa; featuring a community cleaning day on the last Saturday of the month where everyone helps clean
  • Rwanda does not allow plastic bags or flip-flops; helping clean the world’s carbon footprint and preventing people from tripping
  • Rwanda sets a strong example of female representation in government; featuring a government where 56% – 64% of parliament are women

– taken from this blog 

General national facts (National Geographic):

  • Population: 8,722,000
  • Relative Size: “About the size of Maryland”
  • Languages: Kinyarwanda, French, English, Kiswahili
  • Exports: Coffee, Tea, Hides, Tin Ore
  • Independence Day: 1 July 1962
  • Literacy Rate: 70%
  • Natural Hazards: Drought, Volcanoes
  • National Song: Rwanda Nziza

To understand the extraordinary leap Rwanda has taken over the past twenty years, we must contextualize historically and know that things were not always so positive for this country. This land, once marked by ethnic disparity and strife, became a German colony in 1899. Belgium took over this land in 1919, and it is at this point that a differentiation is made between Tutsi and Hutu on an institutional level: because one group took on more Caucasian features, they were benefitted and therefore encouraged to take more power than the majority Hutus (BBC). Suffering with the post colonial World War II consequences of colonialism and war, this land was left abused and pained by the time it became its own republic under the name of Rwanda in 1961. Western neglect and carelessness in failing to address the problems of colonialism and the Hutu vs. Tutsi resentment they fostered led to chaos. In 1959 before “independence,” over 20,000 Tutsis were killed by rebels in Burundi, a neighboring country. The fighting would continue over the next thirty years; over 70,000 refugees would come to be placed in either Burundi or the Democratic Republic of Congo (UN). Then-President Juvenal Hayarimana declared that the economic pressure would be too great to accommodate the Tutsi refugees who had lived in Rwanda in the first place.

In 1979, the Rwandese Alliance for National Unity was created to mobilize against the genocide ideology encroaching upon the atmosphere. This movement quickly becomes the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), originally based in Uganda. In 1990, the RPF launched an armed liberation struggle from Uganda that strove to oust the dictatorship in Rwanda. Tensions arose in Rwanda between the 85% Hutu majority and 15% Tutsi minority as the Radio Television Libres Des Mille Collines (RTLM) began spreading resentment about Tutsis and their previous rule in the land. With an array of ethnic and economic tensions mounting, what actually catalyzed the Rwandan genocide was the death of President Juvenal Habyarimana, who died in a plane crash. The tensions broke over in a genocide wherein 100 days lead to the death of more than 800,000 Rwandans, Tutsis and moderate Hutus, all Rwandans lost in a pandemonium with little support from the outside world (BBC). In the tragedy of 1994, families were torn apart, the country punctured deeply, people of a country and world forever changed. Genocide court trials in the Gacaca Courts would not even begin for a full two years afterwards as Rwanda slowly and tenderly picked up pieces and put itself into a full unified picture.

Perhaps the children felt the direst consequences of the Rwandan Genocide. According to UNICEF, over 95,000 children had been orphaned. Post-genocide judicial processes put parents into a lifetime of prison or parents were slaughtered, sometimes in the face of their own children. By 2001, 264,000 children lost their parents to HIV / AIDS, a consequence of lack of education, lack of resources, and economic troubles. One in five children died before their 5th birthday and children were forced to become adults as the head of households. Over 42,000 child-raised households raised 101,000 children in the years following the Rwandan genocide (SOS Children). This incredible wound of a country’s future generation has been dressed and addressed by President Kagame’s administration and the tremendous efforts of the Ministry of Education.

Social Issue

Today, education in Rwanda has improved extraordinarily yet still faces two challenges. According to a 2014 article published by the Guardian, Rwanda has the highest primary school enrollment rate in all of Africa at a wonderful 96.5% of children in school. The current education minister is Vincent Biruta, who has laid out at a teaching development module specific to the two crises facing Rwandan education: 1) a lack of qualified teachers and 2) a lack of relevant curriculum in place. In the 2007 report published by the Rwandan Ministry of Education, only 8.3% of teachers had a bachelor’s degree that specialized in education. 28.4% had either an ordinary diploma or a degree without an education certification. Biruta has explained this quandary as a combination of teachers not receiving enough compensation for their work, with English replacing the French that most teachers knew, with the prospect of better job opportunities popping up for qualified teachers.

The curriculum of Rwandan primary education also poses a problem. Our community partner mentor, Kathie Hartzog, has spoken at length about how rote memorization in schools is a challenge for the students because they are not learning how to apply their skills to a real-world context. Additionally, teachers will face a shift in how education is taught in Rwanda as technology proliferates and completely changes the nature of learning. To this end, I see my service work as working directly with the teachers in the nonprofit P.R.E.F.E.R. to integrate new teaching styles into their rapidly changing curriculums. I see my work with English-literacy in the schools as something that must vary from the current route of rote memorization and encourage children to develop their skills in a real-world context where thinking and speaking are diversified and fluid. I see myself being inspired by incredibly hard-working students, many of whom hail from families of many, many children, or who may hail as the head of the household themselves. I see my service working with the teachers and students as a blessing of knowledge, a lesson in dedication, and a dream of my own personal development.



Businesses for Teachers

A news article published by The Rwanda Focus in late 2015 titled Teachers Told to Maximize Umwalimu Sacco elaborates on the fact that teachers in Rwanda are not paid enough for their services. This news article explains what Umwalimu Sacco Cooperative is: an initiative created by a Rwandan that will encourage teachers to create their own businesses. Individuals in Rwanda can create their own business within twenty-four hours (RDB). Sacco Cooperative would provide additional resources to teachers specifically who chose to create their own business. The article elaborates on the fact that many Rwandan teachers should feel compelled to begin their own business to supplement an income from teaching. The article also discusses the idea that teachers who begin their own business would feel a lot more empowered from doing so than normal teachers. A teacher simply has to invest RWF 10,000 and 5% of their net monthly gain to receive the resources and support groups to establish their business.

Reading this article, I immediately thought of the state of teachers’ treatment in the United States. I was raised in an in-cogent discourse of sublime prejudices against teachers in the world around me when, in actuality, teachers bear one of the greatest responsibilities of the country in raising future generations of leaders and innovators. With the quickly progressing state of Rwanda currently, I wonder what it will mean for youth of my age to be raised in the same environment that shuns the teachers that we need to evolve mentally, creatively, emotionally. As someone now shyly reflecting on desire to think about a career path of teaching, I wonder what both the United States and Rwanda can do to change services offered to teachers. Rwandan teachers for primary and secondary school seem to receive more respect than US teachers for middle and high school, so I am stuck wondering how a space for more services and opportunity and compensation can be carved out for teachers.

Youth Empowerment Campaign

In another news article published by News Time Africa in 2012 titled Rwanda Launches Youth Empowerment Campaign, the Ministry of Education begins another initiative aimed at equipping youth with the confidence and drive to succeed. Working together with the Communication Technology (ICT), the Ministry of Education would oversee the creation of over 2,148 youth-run cooperatives around the country. This initiative would allow youth to raise their living standards by accepting loans that are reduced in percent tax. The CIA Government Factbook reveals that over 39% of the population of the Rwandan population lives below the poverty line, a clear incidence that although things are getting better for youth and their families from a point of twenty years ago, there is still plenty of progress to be made. Youth will feel these stresses and burdens the most as they earn their education and set Rwanda on a brilliant trajectory towards a better life ahead.

This article made me reflect upon the drive to receive an education despite extreme economic adversity. I am truly privileged in the United States: everybody wants to go to school and it was never a difficult matter to get to school or even to enroll in higher education. Cathy Emmerson and Kathie Hartzog have both spoken to Peter and I about the immense efforts involved with something so quotidian to me as attending class: whether students are walking miles to get to the classroom or braving pounding rain to get into the door or working oftentimes without the materials they need to supplement their education, Rwandan students are putting an incredible amount of their heart, time, and energy forward to make a difference in their lives. I will not waste their time. I will not forget that I am there to work with teachers and offer specialized skills from my country. I will be all that I currently am, for these students who are going to be so much more in the future based on their commitment to education: so much more successful, so much more heartful than anyone knew they could be. There is no limit to the potential of someone who goes to such lengths for their future, and I will be mindful of their dedication and ambition.


Controversy Over Kagame

An article recently published by The Rwandan avers that the state of civil conversation in Rwanda is strained by a totalitarian tone seeping into daily life. The topic of the article points out Rwanda’s involvement in the Panama Papers, a clandestine offshore network of financial interests tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Rwandan military official Emmanuel Ndahiro being one of 128 individuals involved from many countries in this controversy. Every country has a financial scandal at some point or another. The striking part of the article is its observation that Rwanda is a state wherein one cannot say the wrong thing without falling into irreversible punishment: “In Rwanda, better that you see nothing, hear nothing, and smell nothing. It is safer that way” (Himbara). This totalitarian nature is a reflection of both an intense response to genocide and idealogical thinking as well as a complicated history of financial support from Western countries that back Rwanda. A different article from UDF-INKINGI reported that Canada provided over $500 million in funding for Rwanda while other Western countries provide over $1 billion annually for Rwanda. This funding is reportedly being re-considered as Kagame hopes to continue his powerful, controversial, and emphatic leadership.

In formulating a response to this insight, my first thought was of the Assad leadership currently inflicting incomparable damages onto Syrian society and people. The Assad family too has been in power for over forty years, just as Kagame would remain in power for a full forty years if he wins the special election that he himself helped ratify in the Rwandan constitution. He won both elections by an incredible victory, but at that point I had been missing a very important piece of context: Rwandans are socialized to obsess over this man. The news article talks about people kissing his photo and praying for him while simultaneously, journalists speaking up and out are disappearing and others are made mad, suddenly declared missing. It also does not surprise me to see the United States backing a totalitarian leader and only recently re-evaluating its financial support for this leader. Clearly, there are many forces in play here and many opportunities during my service to observe the way people are socialized to think and speak about their leadership. It makes me wonder how I’ve been socialized to love the United States, for example, and all the good traits a liberal democracy apparently stands for while America never talks about what it did to Vietnam or why it persists in its Middle Eastern wars, “saving people” as a justification for mass murder. I will have to be extra mindful of my tongue during service.

Nyabarongo River

In this news article, Himbara expresses discontent over the treatment of the Nyaborongo River in Rwanda. This 300km river, which begins in Nyungwe Forest and flows into the Akager River, Lake Victoria region, is a major river running through Rwanda yet is experiencing the brunt and burden of industrialization. Himbara reports that Rwanda has lost the productivity to feed over 40,000 people due to erosion impurifying the river and cites agricultural production and mining as major factors for this. An article published in the Journal of Water Resources and Protection in 2015 confirms that Rwanda is currently passing standards for the protection of the Nile River, yet may soon be facing difficulties if it continues its treatment of the Nyabarongo as so (Habiyakare & Zhou). The authors urge Rwandan administration to bolster current water legislation with more water monitoring as well as a creation of National Water Resources Management Policies (Habiyakare & Zhou 895).

Industrialization in cities does not always occur in tandem with legislation protecting the environment. I immediately thought of the startling concern of how many nations hope to emulate the United States’ industrial productivity, but our lifestyles are not sustainable; a country with 5% of the world’s population should not be taking over 25% of the world’s energy. The environment is important and if we continue at our current rate, we will face immense and irreversible consequences globally. In returning back to Rwanda, I was shocked by how a country with incredibly clean streets and a stance against plastic bags and other forms and initiatives for the maintenance of a healthy environment could have missed the river’s health. There is so much I don’t know about this country and so much I am eager to learn!


My colleague Peter Yun and I reached out to a variety of wonderful individuals who were gracious in offering their wisdom and guidance for our pre-trip education.

Faculty Member – Dr. Alexander Byrd

The first person we reached out to was Dr. Alexander Byrd, a professor of African Studies here at Rice University. He provided us with a variety of excellent books to read before our service, books about Rwanda such as We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Dr. Alexander Byrd also reminded us that post-service education should definitely continue with classes taken at Rice such as sociology and history classes concerning Africa, Rwanda, and US-Africa relations. I was saddened that I could not take a sociology course about race and ethnic relations that was offered this semester, but I look forward to continuing my education as a senior with more flexibility in my schedule next year.

Community Partners – PAIR

We reached out to a community organization close to my heart: PAIR, the Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees. This nonprofit organization coordinates Rice University volunteers and Houston community volunteers who come into local middle schools and high schools and tutor refugee youth on a weekly basis. I have volunteered with PAIR since my freshman year, and was elated to formally interview Lauren West and Shaina Holms, project managers of PAIR and personal mentors to me. We asked them questions concerning how to engage children with different culture differences: what we should be aware of as a foreigner going into an entirely different culture, as students who have been privileged by technology, small class sizes, classes right outside of our dorm rooms, and so much more. They delved into insightful teaching techniques that will be crucial to working with the age level of the students we will be working with in PREFER: attention grabbers, songs, symbol games, all ways to communicate that are language and culture agnostic. We learned that (with the teacher’s guidance), we should use a combination of Kinyarwanda and English in our lessons to make sure everyone is understanding: not simply memorizing, but comprehending.

We also learned from our PAIR mentors about the challenges a nonprofit like PAIR faces in providing services to refugee youth in Houston. I plan on continuing mentoring refugee youth well into my senior year and even after if I stay in Houston post-graduation. These are challenges I would like to somehow tackle in my senior year Capstone for the CCL: oftentimes, it is difficult to reach all of the refugees who need PAIR’s services most in southwestern Houston. The education and sites are simply not accessible to youth in terms of physical distance, and then there are issues concerning transportation and consistent spaces for the learning to take place. While brainstorming what could be done about this in Houston, I began thinking of a breathtaking memory told by Ms. Kathie Hartzog. She recalls a moment teaching in Uganda where a teacher conference took place on a rainy day. Despite this, over thirty or so teachers showed up to the conference on various vehicles; and many had walked miles and overcome major difficulties just to be involved. Thinking about the problem of space and accessibility, especially when so many teachers are so dedicated, inspires me in thinking of potential solutions both in Rwanda and Houston.

Inspirational Guidance – Kathie Hartzog

Kathie Hartzog is the Area Director of the Nabor House Community, a local nonprofit that invests in the development of low-income children and their families. Kathie had, for the past seven summers, volunteered in Uganda and taught at local preschools. She offered us such an incredibly rich array of knowledge and insight about education in Africa that I was completely inspired. She elaborated upon the problems of rote memorization in schools currently and how to solve this: via techniques like dramatization, where students read a novel and are assigned parts to act out for the next class. She provided me with so many idea for planning out activities with the students: pictures games, vocabulary tournaments, pictures games, and so much more that focuses on playing and team-building instead of worksheets and simple memorizations. She informed us that most kids in the Ugandan schools would simply sit answering worksheets or reciting information for hours in the day when what the students really needed was interactive education that encouraged creativity and agency. Given this and the statement from our service provider, Cathy Emmerson, that the teachers are “hungry for new knowledge,” I am so excited to begin brainstorming and designing these activities that have a focus on interactivity, fostering intellectual curiosity, and team-building. I am so grateful for the opportunity of meeting with Kathie, and look forward to hearing more of her exciting stories in Uganda and learning more about her work in Houston with the Nabor House Community.


If I had asked myself five months ago if I was ever going to study abroad, I would have said no. I would have said that I had taken on too many leadership positions in my time at Rice knowing that it meant I couldn’t leave for a semester. I would admit to my financial concern of not having money to study abroad. I would have never said that I would be going to Africa this summer and embarking on a service experience that would surely change my life. If someone had asked me what the Center for Civic Leadership was at that time, I would only be able to offer a hazy explanation of “that really cool place in the RMC that houses ASB trips… ‘and stuff’”. I would have never guessed that I was curious and excited by the idea of something called a “Certificate in Civic Leadership,” a remarkable light in my Rice career where my world seemed slightly dimmed by the lack of resources and guides for what I wanted to do: civic leadership and nonprofit development work, with an emphasis on teaching.

In fact, it’s only on a very strong whim that I wandered into Jesse Hendrix’s office about a week before the Loewenstern Fellowship application was due. And this was the turning point in my whole Rice experience: the moment where I felt that my education was connected to something so much larger and important than anything I had ever known here outside of my experiences with PAIR, something that spanned beyond me and years forward in time. I know what my dream is: working with disadvantaged youth arund the world, studying the arts of happiness and survival systems in these youth cultures whose experiences vary based on their place in this vast world. And the Center for Civic Leadership offered me an anchor, throwing down my dream into the depths of a reality where I could connect with youth around the world and learn more about what it means to be an educated and empowered leader in this time and place. I am eternally grateful to the Center for Civic Leadership, to Jesse, to Lauren, to Peter, and to all the incredible mentors who are bringing me to this point of experiential education and realization. I aspire to tell everyone I can about my experiences with the CCL and the Loewenstern Fellowship so they too are inspired to feel the magic of this shining resource.

I knew nothing except for scary stereotypes about Rwanda when I looked into this service placement. My mom would say things like, “You can travel anywhere except for the Middle East and Africa,” an opinion informed by the cruel stereotypes our world has created through very real narratives of colonization and victimization of these countries by the West. But I wanted to serve in Africa because I knew nothing, because I knew that it meant that everything that I did know would be challenged: thoughts concerning systems of education, what it means to receive an education, and the challenges in face of this. I wanted to work in this small nonprofit, guided by a nonprofit leader who knows the ways of the world better than perhaps I ever would. And I knew this experience would allow me to engage with the dream of serving youth internationally and at home for a lifetime.

I want to learn so much more now that I cannot learn until I arrive. I’d like to know more about the complex array of challenges faced by youth my age in Rwanda, such as adapting to new proliferating technologies and advancing education, and their own perspectives on the trajectory of the country. My favorite activities I look forward to as of right now are speaking to locals and getting an understanding of how they live their daily lives and how they perceive conflicts with countries around them (I will be so careful not to speak or say anything against President Kagame!).  I am so incredibly excited and blessed by this opportunity – and I aspire to speak to everyone I can, to be as helpful as I can in all scenarios, to be honest with my intentions and to be as genuine about who I am as well.


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Momota, R. (2012, October 7). RWANDA LAUNCHES YOUTH EMPOWERMENT CAMPAIGN. News Time Africa. Retrieved February 20, 2016, from

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Vergara, M. (2004, April 6). Ten years after genocide, Rwandan children suffer lasting impact. Retrieved February 20, 2016, from


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