The Gashora Girls are some of the most incredible young women I have ever been lucky enough to meet. Here is Celeste, Enatha, Yvonne, Jocelyn and Merveille, embarking on their dreams. I am so proud of, and inspired by all of them.
What does this experience here mean, volunteering in Rwanda? One of our students posted a status on Facebook saying something like “all these white people come here to see how much better their lives are than ours.” She wasn’t talking specifically about any of the Muzungu (white) teachers, or anyone I know. She was talking about tourists in general. But it is an honest statement. Hmm… It’s important to really look at your own intentions while volunteering abroad. Luckily I don’t think I am just another white-honky seeing how good I’ve got it back home, although I certainly do acknowledge my white privilege. What I am developing is a way to be a positive indent on this planet. My intention is to be of help, to observe, to explore and to journey in order to come to understandings about my country and about myself and to help others in the process. Education is such a beautiful part of life; I want to make sure everyone, no matter what country you come from or if you’re a boy or girl, has the opportunity to reap the benefits of equality through education. So far, I have had the pleasure of seeing what life is like on a different part of the planet, I’ve formed friendships, taught great students and have met amazing people.
Frankly, my intentions were to be a giver in the me-Africa-relationship and give my all to the school, which i have, but wow if I don’t feel like a kid at Christmas ripping open my presents because of what I have inadvertently been given while volunteering here: My soul has deepened: My feeling of family has grown from across the Atlantic ocean to the continent over here: My eyes and heart have been opened, my mind broadened and I have learned about the raw-ness of life: I am now rooted in knowing my connection to the planet and more so than ever and I know that the whole of humanity is my family: The girls have welcomed me to their amazing school and they have made me adore each of them for their uniqueness of spirit and incredible intellect. So again, what does my experience mean? I’ll just briefly look back on these past several months, as the experiences pop into my head, whether they were good experiences or unfortunate ones.
I have rooted myself to the Gashora school and have traveled. I have looked on as people from the village “steal” drinking water. (Think about that for a second. to “steal” drinking water.) I have observed my dinner being carried to the back of a building, it’s eyes blinking unknowingly. I have picked up trash in people’s backyards along with students for the national community day and then burned the trash into billowing, engulfing clouds of toxic smoke. (hmm…) I’ve met Masai women in Tanzania who have undergone female genital mutilation and have met the young British girls in Zanzibar, hours before they were attacked with acid. I have bought avocadoes for less than a nickel from sweet old women at the market under acacia trees. I have been chased by giggling children in bare feet and dusty dresses. I have seen the dedication of hard working students who yearn to be doctors and scientists of their own country that so recently told them no, “people like you” stay in the home and should not go to school. I have learned about the long journeys my students have had to overcome just so they can get their education. They were beaten, run-down and teased by their previous teachers. They have walked hours on bloody feet just to get to school and their families crops have been burned to the ground just because they were girls and wanted an education. They have stood up to the old ways and voiced their opinions against child marriage. They have fought for their rights as women/girls/humans. I am in awe and ever grateful for my experience here.
So what’s next? I don’t’ know. But I DO know I will continue on a positive path. No matter what I’m doing, my love for humanity, particularly women’s rights, will flow through me. I see that there is this giant, wonderful transformation underway world-wide that is starting to enable women to rise up in equality and have their rights. As you may know, a world movement for women’s rights is still very needed: unequal pay for equal work, objectification of women, victim blaming, bride burnings, sex slavery, female genital mutilation and acid attacks, just to name a few, are reasons a women’s rights movement is so important. (Click the blue to find more info about each.) The fact that this list is so abhorrently long is reason enough for us to say, no more.
It’s unfortunate it has taken this long for a world-wide movement but I am so grateful to be involved in it. So how do I stay involved in this women’s rights movement that is, I believe, underway? Well, sadly, in my very own country, we still need to fight the good fight: Women’s rights are being chipped away in the States: The human right to have control over one’s own body is being challenged by certain governmental figures. If a woman is told that a bundle of cells growing in her uterus essentially has more rights than she does, what does that say about our country? The USA is a giant role model for the world and if they’re not enabling women’s rights, who will? In Rwanda, I see first hand the huge impact that the USA has on other countries in the world. So if the States can’t get their shit together, then what? If the States won’t pay women an equal salary for equal work then we’re all screwed. If they don’t offer proper maternal and paternal care then who will? If my own government in the States will bend over backwards and jeopardize their own people and economy and shut down the government in large part due to their opposing opinions about birth control, where is my country and this world going? So to answer the question I had at the beginning of this paragraph: How do I stay involved? Well, my own country needs a lot of help too. I will stay involved in the women’s rights movement where ever I go.
It’s 5am and the girls in my dorm are getting ready to see their peers accept diplomas: The first ever graduation of the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology here in Rwanda istoday. To understand why I feel like a balloon floating on euphoria you have to hear a little bit about how far these Gashora Academy girls have come.
Anocciat is highly appreciated by her teachers now, but it wasn’t always that way. After fleeing the genocide in Rwanda, Annociat’s mother gave birth to her in Uganda where they lived in a refugee camp. Just like food and water, education was a rarity. Very few were able to go to school but Anocciat was one of the few who attended. It took her 3 hours to walk to school and 3 hours back but she made the journey everyday. She soaked in what education she could but her teachers were keen on making things hard for her just because she was Rwandan. They beat her in front of her classmates, crossed out her right answers on exams and put in wrong ones, all the while saying things like “go back to Rwanda”. Through all of these difficulties, Annociat says “I still held on, worked hard because of true love and passion I had for education and learning. “
In Enatha’s village, no girls ever go to school. Why? Because people assume girls just get pregnant at school. When Enatha was 7, she asked her father if she could go to school. He told her “Go ahead and try.” So she did. Everyday, she would walk the far distance to school in bare feet since her family could not afford shoes. She would get to school with bloody feet and the children would tease her and break her down but she continued to go because, in her words, “I went there having in mind that I have to do what others have failed.” In an attempt to stop her studies the villagers burnt down her family’s coffee plants, “which were our source of everything.” Her father was traumatized and her mother thought about committing suicide, not knowing how they were going to survive. “After this situation, everyone was telling me to go and practice prostitute in order to get the materials to go to school and I said no that is not my dream. I struggled, but still working hard was my goal in order to get what I want to be.” Enatha says the experience has pushed her to attain good grades so that her parents will not give up. Although her village is still not happy with her going to school, Enatha says she still attends school because “I have to make a difference and support my community so that they can move from the darkness. Living in the dark, always push me to strive reaching in the light, and I will reach there. This I believe.”
Enatha is striving towards a career as a doctor.
To be a part, however small, of helping these inspirational young women achieve greatness is something I am grateful for. I can’t believe my luck in being able to volunteer for this school that has allowed girls like Enatha and Anocciat to flourish and pursue their goals. This is the school that has sent girls to the prestigious African Leadership Academy: the school that has had girls flourish from being non-English speakers, to receiving high marks on the English SAT section. This is the school that teaches 270 girls how to become physicists, biologists and doctors in a country where only a small percentage of women occupy these positions currently. The Gashora Girls Academy is an epicenter for positive change in Africa. Being a small part of the accomplishments here at this Academy is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Seeing these incredible girls accept their diplomas today will be like watching a new and refreshing history unfold and the beginning of something beautiful.
Positive change is like a papaya. It starts with a seed and when planted, it grows, flourishes and takes shape. When the fruit is ingested, it benefits the whole body and mind with it’s nutritious qualities. Positive change is happening here at the Gashora Academy like a landscape full of papaya trees springing up into the sky. The sisterhood I see here is an unquestioned source of strength and unity that lingers palpably about the classrooms and dorms. This is a place where empowering women is the absolute norm; it is so a part of the daily life that I forget about it sometimes. So I often step back and think “wow, that student’s perspective on contraception is revolutionary” or “wow, that t-shirt says ‘End hunger, empower women farmers” “How cool is it that we show films like Half the Sky and Girl Rising?”
All of these simple aspects add up to a school where girls learn to appreciate their full value. They learn to become well-rounded women seeking their own individual careers and identities through paths like politics, engineering and physics. And on the side, the school instills an understanding of women’s human rights issues that we face around the world and offers solutions on a day-to-day basis of how to end such problems. How great is that? News articles will be posted on the walls about current issues. For example, an article was taped up on the wall outside about obstetric fistulas. Obstetric fistulas are a devastatingly common health problem women face in giving childbirth, mainly in developing nations. Beneath the article a teacher had written “Want to be a doctor and eliminate this problem?” This school is where positive change is happening. Education really is the key. It is like planting papaya seeds and watching the trees sprout and flourish.
One of the best moments I’ve experienced here was the other night. While sitting at the faculty table eating dinner, my friend Amy sat down next to us with some great news. Three girls from our very own Gashora Girls Academy had been accepted into the African Leadership Academy. To understand what incredible news this is you have to first know a little bit about the ALA. So I turned to my friend and teacher extraordinaire here at GGA, Sam, and she filled me in. The ALA is one of the best schools you can find anywhere in Africa. It is a leadership school that opens doors to incredible opportunities. If you’re lucky enough and academically driven enough to have the honor of being accepted and attend the ALA, it basically allows you to go to college anywhere in the world including schools in the states such as Harvard and Stanford, usually on full ride scholarships. But they only accept around a few hundred people per year out of all of Africa. And THREE of our girls were accepted. So Amy, (who by the way is also a rock-star administrator here and very much responsible for the girls acceptance into ALA) asked all of us at the table if she thought she should announce the great news to the school at that moment and we all agreed it would inspire everyone in the room to hear about their peers being accepted to such a prestigious school. So she and Alain, our soon-to-be headmaster, went to the front of the 270 some students, microphone in hand, ready to announce the news.
The girls had been waiting weeks to see if anyone had been accepted, so when Alain simply said “Good evening everyone. Can I please have Peace come to the front of the room” everyone knew exactly what she was being called up there for: They knew she had made it: She had been accepted into the ALA. The dinning hall exploded with energy, girls screaming and jumping up and down in support for their friend. But they didn’t seem to be expecting another name so when Alan said the second name, everyone in the room exploded with even more cheering and jumping. The supportive energy in the room was amazing! And when even a third name was called the room of girls couldn’t stand it. They erupted and hollered and clapped and were literally jumping for joy. It was beautiful to see how positively the school impacts these girls and to see what they can achieve. Absolutely amazing. And my friend Sam was so proud because she had worked right alongside those girls throughout her time here.
I just have to say, Sam is incredible. What she accomplishes at this school is inspiring. It is not just the astounding amount of work she accomplishes in one day around the school but also the relationships she has with the girls. You can tell the girls just love her and for good reason. They respect her, they learn a lot from her and they laugh hearty laughs at her fun-loving antics. I’m so inspired everyday seeing what she does. I could tell she was excited to see adventures and possibilities coming to fruition for the three Gashora girls that night.