I’m going to depart from my usual format and include some pictures in this post. I want you to see Amani. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
Her ambition is not unusual—at least it wouldn’t be for American girl. What is unusual is that Amani is enrolled in high school in the tiny African country of Rwanda—and she’s well on the way to achieving her dream.
In Rwanda, it’s unusual for children to be in high school at all. In this tiny country in west central Africa, elementary education (grades 1-6) is mandated; in fact, 98% of the boys and 96% of the girls attend village elementary schools. But that’s where education ends for most.
The reason is money: A year of secondary school costs at least $300.
In a country where, according to the World Bank figures for 2011, the per capita GDP averages $570 a year, sending your child to secondary school—and you may have three, four, five, six children—is impossible. Amani is lucky: She attended a elementary school that partners with Every Child is My Child, an American non-profit that provides scholarships for any child in the school who passes the national exam to qualify for secondary school.
Every Child is My Child has been partnering with Nyacyonga, Amani’s village school, for five years. Children at Nyacyonga have a reason now to stay in school and study hard: Secondary school has become a possibility.
In sheer economic terms, attending secondary is meaningful because, again according to the World Bank, every additional year of school means a 10% increase in earning power. Amani is a junior, so she’s already added 50% to her potential as a wage earner. In human terms, think what an education means for her: She will have choices about the path she follows in life.
Think what Amani can do for her country.
Rwanda is not only the smallest country in Africa; it is the most densely populated. Most people in the rural areas are subsistence farmers, growing bananas and sorghum and coffee. In fact, Rwanda’s chief export is coffee, but the country is so small it can’t compete globally with Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania—much larger countries with far larger harvests.
Rwanda has one major tourist attraction: the endangered mountain gorillas made famous in a film about Dian Fossey’s life and work, Gorillas in the Mist. Expensive as it is to trek into the mountainous jungle region to see the gorillas—a permit costs the equivalent of an average Rwandan’s yearly income—a limited number of tourists per day are allowed to see the gorillas (the length of a visit is a strict one hour) so that the animals don’t completely habituate to humans.
On top of that, Rwanda is still recovering from the devastating genocide of 1994 when 800,000 people were slaughtered, mostly by machete, in a mere 90 days—a story told to the world in the film Hotel Rwanda. Education is the route to development and economic independence, and ultimately, the key to peace and progress.
So Amani—her name means “Peace” in Swahili—and her fellow classmates will be the ones to lift Rwanda from poverty and bring stability to the lives of their countrymen. She and her classmates will make, in fact, a global impact because an education is a sustainable resource.
In Rwanda, secondary schools are boarding schools. Students are assigned to schools all over the country according to their interests, their test scores, and the space available, so a class of graduating 6th graders may not stay together. Amani’s is a specialized high school. The curriculum is science-based—what we might call in this country a “magnet school.” She travels by bus—sometimes the ride can be 10 hours—and comes home infrequently. Transportation is expensive, and it is the parents’ responsibility to pay for or make the travel arrangements, their demonstration of commitment to their children’s education. Not one parent at Nyacyonga whose child has passed the qualifying exam has turned down this opportunity for their child. The $300 a year scholarship from Every Child is for tuition, books, school supplies, a uniform, and a roll-up mattress.
Two summers ago, I visited a secondary school with Every Child is My Child’s founder and director (who happens to be my daughter) and some of its donors. The school I saw is in a secluded spot in northeastern Rwanda at the end of a shaded red earth road that cuts through cultivated fields. The grounds are neat, trimmed, tidy. The classroom buildings are sparsely accoutered: blackboards, desks, and only occasionally, a wall poster. The most colorful—and unique—aspect of the school is outside the classroom: Murals depicting body systems and organs have been painted on the exterior of the buildings—the eye, the respiratory system, the ear, for example.
We took Amani and four other Every Child scholars from this school or from boarding schools within a few hours bus ride to lunch at a restaurant on Lake Muhazi, located not far from the school. Charming teenagers, all of them: Amani with her megawatt smile; Mary Louise, who—as is common—is the first in her family to go to secondary school; Grace, who also wants to be a doctor; and two boys, Ananies and Jean-Paul. John-Paul was the spokesperson for the group. On the bus that morning, he’d prepared a speech which he read to us before we ate. He thanked Every Child for the opportunity to go to school, of course, and said that the students’ motto was this: “Upward Ever; Downward, Never.”
Lunch was barbecued chicken and fresh fish and orange soda. The teenagers, accustomed to beans and maize for lunch and dinner day after day after day, picked the platter clean. The soda bottles emptied quickly. “They don’t serve Fanta in the school cafeteria?” we asked, knowing full well they didn’t.
“It would be a miracle!” Amani laughed.
We asked the students about their families, their ambitions, their favorite subjects, and among other things, what they like to do in their spare time. Amani’s not so different than American kids—she likes to relax with her friends. Someone mentioned the upcoming end-of-term exams, though, and she responded, with her characteristic grin, “I guess I’ll have to reduce my relax!”
Every Child is My Child takes a unique approach to educating children in Rwanda and in Burundi, its neighbor. First of all, the scholarships are for secondary school. That’s unusual in the developing world, but clearly, the gap between elementary enrollment and 7th grade clarifies that there is where the need is—and where the greatest impact could be. The incentive for the elementary students—that is, the possibility of continuing on to secondary school—has worked.
And even if a student doesn’t pass the national exam to go on, he or she has lasted through 6th grade at least. That’s going to increase that student’s earning power and insure a degree of literacy. Likely there will be long-term impacts on early marriages and child labor expectations, on earning power and family stability. Education has the potential to break the cycle of poverty—so every year in school helps, and every child is part of the solution.
Every Child is My Child’s model is unique, too, because every child in the partner schools is offered the same opportunity. Some scholarship programs serve individual students—say, the top scholar in a school—or provide support just for girls—or just boys. These programs are important. But Every Child, by educating whole classes of students, aspires to lift entire communities. What can happen when every child in a village is literate, when every child has a high school education? In how many ways will the village itself be transformed? The country? These are big questions. The answers reside in the future these children create for themselves and their families.
Right now, Every Child sponsors about 300 students from two elementary schools in Rwanda (Nyacyonga and Ngenda) and one in Burundi (Mageyo), an even poorer country, where the school fees for secondary grades add up to only $100 a year. The first graduates—kids who have been supported for a full six years—will receive their diplomas in 2014. There are plans to expand the Every Child model, but in the meantime, more students begin 7th grade each year, so the need to expand the base of reliable funders is also growing. This is an organization that depends 100% on volunteers—there are no salaries for anyone—and right now, the organization relies largely on individual donations.
Some American schools have helped, though–and that’s the connection to my American classroom. In my next post, I’ll describe what the International Club at my high school has done to support Every Child is My Child and what another teacher in North Dakota is doing with her middle school students. You can help, too, if you’re a teacher looking for a service project. In the meantime, you can learn more about Every Child by visiting the organization on Facebook (www.facebook.com/EveryChildisMyChild) or by viewing this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeAW9IKHJok
And murakoze. That’s “thank you” in Kinyarwandan. Thank you for reading this blog. Thank you for caring about every child.