After 11 years working for VSO on education in Rwanda, I’ve seen genuinely great progress and healing through a wide range of efforts around teacher training, education at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and in raising awareness of the rights of people with disabilities.
What has emerged is a space for us in the development community to take a more holistic approach to our work across all our sectors and help move Rwanda closer to the Vision 2020 goal set by the government and considered a model for post-conflict transitions in developing nations.
I’ve been talking with the government, teachers, NGO partners and colleagues in Rwanda for some time about how we make sure our work on social inclusion is aligned with what we are doing across education and on securing livelihoods. When I go out into the field and see newly trained local teachers using methodologies that place children at the center of learning, linked up with community efforts to encourage the parents of children with special needs to take them to mainstream schools and learn about sustainable farming, I feel like I’m seeing the future of development in Rwanda.
But this vision still needs to be multiplied.
One of the consequences of the 1994 genocide was that a huge number of qualified teachers were lost in the massacres. In order to reduce that deficit and strengthen education, the government invited VSO in 1998 to support rebuilding teachers’ skills and improve access to education for socially excluded groups, like children with special needs. Since then, over 300 volunteers from a wide range of countries have come to share their experience with Rwandan educators and encourage the use of a more learner-centered approach, more exciting for pupils we need to engage so they stay in school as long as possible.
During this time, we have also contributed to strengthening the education program at the Kigali Memorial Center, where all citizens — young and old — can express their feelings and engage in open discussions that assist the healing processes. This is crucial for a country that suffered the fastest genocide ever to move forward and to prevent anything like what took place in 1994 from ever happening again.
One of the government’s main achievements has been to drive up primary school enrolment, now over 95 percent, which means now the goal should be to increase the quality of the education. After consulting with teaching methodology and education leadership advisors, teachers have learned how to use learner-centered methods that enhance children’s participation in their own learning.
Another consequence of the 1994 genocide is the immense amount of people with disabilities, both physical and psychological. While the political will to give them opportunities and protect their rights was always there, resources and technical capacity remained obstacles. Volunteers from around the world have stepped up to that challenge and have helped to build the capacity and constituency of people with disabilities to represent and support their members in decision-making processes, as well as increasing access to basic services.
I have the pleasure of working alongside professionals with a background in special education, like Mark Aldridge from the VSO Inclusive Futures in Rwanda project. Working in partnership with Handicap International, the Rwandan Ministry of Education, the Rwandan Education Board and the University of Rwanda’s College of Education, Aldridge has been part of a team that developed and piloted a standardized approach to educating children with disabilities, a success as some of these kids have been able to go to school for the first time, while others have seen the quality of their education and learning experience improve dramatically.
We have a long way to go, so I’m shouting out from the Kigali rooftops for more experienced primary school teachers, teacher trainers, special education teachers and planners, school leaders, business managers and agronomists to volunteer with us and bring my vision to life.
Rwanda has come so far, but we want to go even further.
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