Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Child Friendly Schools in Rwanda

There is an impression by the west, which I believe dates back to the colonial era that Africans do not want to improve their own livelihoods. Many well-intentioned westerners go to Africa believing they can bring change to the continent by bringing education and medicine thinking they will have to convince the locals that this change is good for them. It is true that in some areas in Africa people are wary of medicine as they believe it is witchcraft or are wary of education because they fear losing their culture and tradition, but for the most part Africans want better lives for themselves. I met the American ambassador while I was in Rwanda and he said that he loved Rwanda because it’s one of the only countries where they want change more than we (meaning the west) do. At first I thought it was a nice thing to say and very true that Rwandans desperately want to better themselves. But the more I thought about it the ruder the comment seemed- what country wouldn’t want to better itself? Who would intentionally choose poverty and disease over health and stability? I think everyone wants that, even people who are afraid of change want a healthier happier life. It was evident in every child’s face that I met in Rwanda that the country was destined for a bigger and brighter future than its dark past. Children want to learn and Rwanda, with some help from UNICEF, is working as fast as they can to make a minimum of 9 years free education a reality for every single child.

When you travel with UNICEF there is a term you hear over and over again, “Child Friendly School.” UNICEF’s goal in Rwanda is for every school to become child friendly, but there is not enough funding to do so at this time. However, they are working hard to make sure that even schools that they can’t be given the whole “child friendly” package still gets basic hygienic necessities. Many girls will stop going to school when they hit puberty because there aren’t bathrooms at their school.  Building separate boys and girls bathrooms keeps girls in school in their teenage years. There is ample evidence that investing in a girl’s education in developing countries has a high yield return on the investment for many reasons like women having children later in life, women having careers and receiving sex education, which is critical in the prevention of HIV transmission.

Hand washing may seem like such a simple act and one that many westerners don’t even do (I’m talking about you creepy guy on the subway), but that simple act can decrease children’s deaths from preventable causes like diarrhea and ARI (acute respiratory infections) by more than 40%.  ARI and diarrhea together account for two-thirds of all children’s deaths worldwide.  22,000 children die of preventable causes every day around the world.  Do the math it's pretty shocking statistics. In schools like the Gacuba Primary School that we visited in the western province of Rwanda where UNICEF doesn’t yet have the funding to give the school the complete “child friendly” package they have installed bathrooms and hand washing stations and have provided hygiene lessons teaching the importance of hand washing. The kids seemed very excited about their hand washing station and a few kids from the school called me over to watch as they washed their hands giggling and smiling the whole time.


We had the opportunity to visit two other schools while in Rwanda: the Jali School, which was not yet “child friendly” (but was considered about a 5 on the scale of 1 to 10) and the Rubingo School, which UNICEF has been working with and is considered “child friendly.” By creating child friendly schools UNICEF can use them as models to help the government build more by themselves. The Rwandan government is investing in education and it is more economically sensible for the schools to be built correctly the first time than having to go back and fix them later and reinvest in them. The Rwandan government built over 5,500 classrooms and 11,000 latrines between 2009 and 2011 with UNICEF’s help and a donation of $3.5 million to ensure that child friendly designs were used for construction, quality control and monitoring. For a complete list of what makes a child friendly school you can check out here, but the basic standards are spacious and well ventilated classrooms, adequate learning materials for the students, benches and desks, active participation of children, including those with special needs, safe water for drinking and washing, separate bathrooms for girls and boys, and educated teachers that speak English (which is actually hard to find in Rwanda, because they recently switched from French to English as their national language). Those needs seem so basic especially when compared to the luxuries I had in my Los Angeles private schools growing up, but even those basic needs are shockingly absent in many schools, but UNICEF is working to change that.

The kids I met at the Jali School were just like the ones I met at OPDE- kind, smiling, and excited to learn! I hung out with some more kids waiting by the fence for their school shift and had another fun photo shoot showing them the photos and making them giggle at my rusty horrible French and even worse attempts at Kinyarwanda. We met some kids inside the classrooms and we were met with big smiles and enthusiastic explanations of what they are learning inside their classrooms.


The kids at the Rubingo School were also full of smiles and enthusiasm and they even greeted us with a beautiful song and dance. It reminded me of when I was little and we would put on performances at school when parents would come visit.  Except afterward I remember being so happy to linger around and avoid going back to class, whereas these students looked so eager to go back to learning. Getting to see dancing was another great example of an activity implemented at child friendly schools. A requirement of child friendly schools is child participation and life skills enhancement, which includes school sports and activities (like dancing) and school clubs with peer support and opportunities for leadership- all a very important part of the education process.


I actually tripped during the dance while trying to photograph it (oh the perils of being a photographer) and skinned my knee so when we got to the pre-school classroom I sat down and hung out with the kids for a little while. They were some of the most adorable kids I’ve ever met and absolutely loved having their photo taken and seeing the photo on the camera. They all kept trying to climb into my lap and get closer to the camera, which of course meant they were too close to take pictures of, but they were so much fun I didn’t mind!


In some of the older classrooms we got to see the teachers in action working on lesson plans. In one room there was a low blackboard against two walls of the classroom and the children were using it to practice drawing the number 8 over and over again. When I came over to watch them they were all trying to show off drawing their 8 better than their neighbor and they all ended up in giggles at each others slanting downwards figure 8’s.


In another classroom we got to see a grammar lesson on comparisons. The teacher had set up a bare bones sentence structure "is as + adjective + is as" with a bunch of adjectives written on the blackboard and the kids filled in the blanks to make comparisons. It was amazing to watch how enthusiastically the kids all hopped up from their chairs snapping their fingers and raising their hands to get the teacher to call on them. The Rwandan kids can make this amazing snapping noise in one fluid motion as they raise their hand, which I of course spent the next two weeks trying to master and just ended up with a really sore wrist. It was great to see the kids so involved and the teacher motivating them, but because of the recent switch to English there are still large gaps even in the teacher’s education.  We saw the teacher teaching the students without conjugating his adjectives saying "blank is as taller as blank" instead of changing it to tall. Teacher education is a big part of UNICEF’s work to make schools child friendly and we witnessed how important that is even in a school as great as Rubingo.


In one of the classrooms we got to see the learning materials that they use, which are incredibly inventive and resourceful. For notebooks the kids use recycled newspapers and books (my favorite one had an awkward cover about inflammatory disease). They also use bottle caps to create number charts and recycled cardboard to create posters and maps.


We stopped at one more school to make a quick video for the office and again I had a great time hanging out with the children taking pictures. As usual I got swarmed, but at least I stayed upright. My dad got down on one knee to be at their level and the children excitedly surrounded him. When another girl on the trip Brittany copied him at my suggestion the kids enthusiastically closed in on her battling over her lap.

When I passed my camera off to get a picture of myself with the awesome kids I had one try and jump on my back and another hanging off my neck, but I especially love the expression of the boy in front of me…can you say blue steel anyone?



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