We recently celebrated three very important weeks in the Village. Culture Week embraced the unique cultural norms of Rwanda, Gender Week brought to light the importance of equity, and Literacy Week highlighted the importance of reading and writing. Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village incorporates education far beyond the walls of the LiquidNet Secondary School that sits at the highest point on the property. Informal education is woven into every sector, every activity, and every conversation. This is a living and learning community, and as we help the students here heal, we teach them how to embrace who they are in order to be influential and positive members of Rwandan society.
|traditional clothing worn by students during a sketch|
Each night during Culture Week we discussed various topics that covered traditional and historical Rwandan cultural values, cultural norms that need and should be embraced and continued by today’s youth, and the do’s and don’ts in Rwanda when taking culture into account. The week concluded with a Cultural Celebration where the Village elders wore traditional Rwandan clothing, traditional Rwandan music was performed, traditional Rwandan food was prepared and served, and traditional dances were presented on stage.
I often find myself stupefied when students ask me to talk about American culture because I don’t know that such a thing actually exists in a singular form like it does here in Rwanda. America is filled with so many cultures and ethnicities that each family seems to have its own traditions, customs, and rituals that have been handed down over decades and perhaps even centuries. There is not a “one America” as there is a “one Rwanda” meaning that we don’t all blend together as one unit. As I tried to explain this to the students, I found myself thinking that most customs and traditions seem to be drawn from religion in America, versus our cultural heritage. Rosh Hashana fell during Cultural Week, so I shared a bit of wisdom about the Jewish Holiday and interwove it into a cultural celebration of sorts not for Americans, but for Jewish people all over the world.
|traditional Rwandan attire during a performance|
Gender Week was about encouraging each and everyone in the Village to embrace who they are, love their whole selves, and hold on to the idea that gender will not stand in the way of their achievement. The Village is comprised of 60% female, 40% male students, as that is equal to the ratio of female/male orphans in Rwanda. Even though the females outnumber the males, there is still a male dominated overtone when it comes to achievement in school, and showcasing talent in music, dance and poetry. The boys are far more outspoken and comfortable with their own voice, they do not shy away from trying new things, and they seemingly push themselves harder and achieve higher marks in school. Do not get me wrong, there are some all-star females in our Village, but they are often overshadowed because they stand few and far between the boys. Gender Week was about empowerment and bravery and being able to stand toe-to-toe against anyone, no matter their gender and have your voice be heard and your strengths shone. It was about pushing past stereotypes and identifying what fits, not what is supposed to fit, or what has traditionally fit when it comes to gender roles. It was about finding an inner strength and believing in yourself and your abilities, identifying your strengths, recognizing your weaknesses, and exploring your potential. It was not about one gender being dominant over another, nor was it about equality, as men and women are not equal genders when it comes to every ability and task. BUT, each gender has a purpose and each gender can and should achieve great things.
|a traditional painting by a first-year student|
Literacy Week was all about reading. I have been a reading fanatic since arriving in Rwanda, and for the first time in my life, I have really loved to read. It offers a beautiful escape and adventure, while soothing my mind and soul. On 5th October, 2012, the first ever Rwandan Public Library opened in Kigali. In America, I believe that we take our libraries for granted and do not stop to think how many people in the world do not have access to books, let alone thousands that are housed in many of our own communities in the States. One of my favorite conversations of the week happened during family time when my family discussed the importance of literacy for a developing country and its people, and we created a list of ways to increase the literacy among the Rwandan population. At Agahozo, we have a small, yet adequate library housed inside a room in one of our club houses. In my mind, we could greatly use more book donations, but even with the small amount we have, the girls in my family came up with the idea of sharing our books with the local Rubona community members. They described a Rwandan-style book mobile concept, where we could take a wooden cart with wheels, load it with books, and go into the community to share our resources. They talked about the danger of ignorance and how, “the more you read, the more you know.” I loved that quote and even wrote it down in my personal journal. The students at Agahozo understand the importance of reading and writing and have this insatiable thirst for knowledge and information. I love looking around a room and seeing kids with books, reading to one another, asking questions, searching for answers - enjoying the gift that is literacy.
Literacy Week came to a spectacular close with a Village-wide spelling bee where the top male and female speller from each grade battled it out for the title of top speller. Although English is a foreign language to the students at Agahozo, and many of them have far more knowledge of two or three other languages, the vocabulary they were asked to spell was not elementary. While sitting in the audience, spelling each word along with the contestants, I paused and thought to myself, "never did I think I would be in the audience of a spelling bee, cheering on the participants!" I was really embracing and enjoying the moment.
Each week has been so unique and special, and I can't help but respect how the Village stresses such important topics and lessons and infuses educational tidbits into the everyday lives of everyone who resides here. Rwanda may be deemed a "developing country," but in some respects, it is far more developed than those at the top.