Students at a school in Rubavu

A visit to the “Wild West” of Rwanda

It’s the last day of what has been one of the busiest, challenging, most inspirational and rewarding trips I have ever made to Rwanda. And I have made a lot of trips here.

We had a wonderful first week looking at the impact of our work at Wellspring Foundation in the 49 schools in Gasabo province, near the capital Kigali and planning for a new work we are starting in Rubavu, near the Democratic Republic of Congo. This week I got to visit the area. And what a visit it was.

It started with a meeting at the District government offices where our local team met the Mayor and Vice Mayor [the two most senior government representatives] as well as the head of education in the area. It’s very hard to get a meeting so we were delighted that all four were there to meet us. They told us they knew of Wellspring and of the work we had done in Gasabo and on a pilot project in the area. They also told us about some of the chronic issues. Lack of space and facilities, overcrowding, untrained teachers. We talked of the critical problems facing girls in particular, with very high levels of teen pregnancy, children needing to stay and care for families while parents worked, very high drop out rates and the lack of opportunities that among other things, leads many of the girls into exploitation and prostitution. The issues are huge, but the good news was that we were able to tell them that we were committing to stand with them and that we would be launching a 5 year program to repeat what we have done in Gasabo, building vibrant school committees with leaders, teachers, parents and the children themselves. The Mayor was delighted and as he and I shook hands on it, we shared a look of passion and commitment.

At the end of the meeting, the local leaders took us to the border a mile away. 50,000 people a day here cross to trade. Every one of them is searching for a way out of poverty and to feed their families. It was a river of life that threaded from one country to another, full of dreams and aspirations, triumphs and desperation. Living breathing human beings like you and I, who all have a story they live out every day.

The next day we visited two schools and filmed there for our Gala. Or at least I thought that was what we were doing, but it was so much more than that. The first school was one we have been working in for a year. So much has changed and the children had created a sketch for us about life before Wellspring and life after. Before they hated school, they were kicked and punched, hit with sticks. They learnt nothing and many dropped out. Now, they are treated with dignity, lessons are fun and they can’t wait to go. These children had even formed the “Response to a child” club and with Felicienne, the wonderful Headmistress, were reaching out to children who had left to encourage them back. Every child who could was bringing a potato to school, to give to those who had nothing to eat and they were determined to make things better. This school has become a model for others in the area and things are changing. I left the classroom and was literally mobbed by hundreds of children who gathered around me to dance. Finding myself at the centre of this explosion of joy, I danced like no one was watching. Apart from the hundreds of children who thought it was hysterical. And the camera crew…who I have forbidden from ever showing my moves.

The next school was very different and showed me the scope of the challenge we face. 800 kids crammed into 6 classrooms with holes in the roof that rain poured through, no electricity, no books, hardly any desks and chairs. Kids still being beaten and abused. One teacher has 115 kids in the morning and another 115 in the afternoon in his P3 classes. How do you respond to this level of need and desperation? How do we change the future for these kids? I went outside and stood on my own and I made a promise to myself. This is what I will live for in the coming years. To be part of the solution, to be a tiny part of helping these kids become the citizens and leaders they have the potential to be. In the years to come, I want to go back to that school and see transformation. I want to see that in all 86 schools in Rubavu. I want to see the 91,000 children in them experience school as a place of joyful learning. I want to see change.

Tonight I leave. I’m tired but I’m inspired. I’m challenged but I’m not beaten down. I’m ready to help Wellspring and our local partners do anything we can to get these kids the education they deserve, to see girls treated with fairness and equity, to see teachers becoming community leaders, parents engaged and contributing and this whole area transformed as they unleash the raw power of a new generation. And so are the rest of my Wellspring family.

Jesus calls us to the least of these, to let our lights shine. We do that together and these kids have lightened my heart. Honestly I have realized that those we often think of as the least, those who by Western standards have nothing, are some of the most wonderful and brightest lights in the universe. It’s not that I want to let my light shine on them, it’s that I want to have the privilege of bathing in their glow. They are luminously beautiful.

It’s time to go. I’m ready.