The Sonrise School in Ruhengeri, Rwanda. Photo by Thomas Rippe.
I n a cool cement and brick computer lab, deep in a part of Central Africa known for volcanic eruptions and gorilla poaching, Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana hosts a popular Facebook group, Bridge 2 Rwanda.
On this day, he's online in the United States, where he is campaigning and fundraising to save an entire generation of children orphaned in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Today, some of those children attend the Sonrise primary and secondary school down the mud road from the computer lab.
Bridge 2 Rwanda is both an online group and a charitable organization based in Arkansas, USA, that Rucyahana uses to coordinate worldwide support of Sonrise, which is an orphanage and an elite boarding school. Among those supporters are members of the Rotary clubs of Denver Southeast and Westminster 7:10, Colo., USA, who equipped the computer center and raised funds for training the teachers. Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Rucyahana spoke to the members of these clubs, who, galvanized by the bishop's charisma and Kagame's appeal for investment and technological expertise, couldn't help but get involved.
A "light on the hill"
Rucyahana opened his primary school in 2001 to the neediest orphans from the surrounding districts, with the goal of becoming a "light on the hill" for the rest of the country. The school placed among the top in the country within its first two years and by 2005, it was the best in the country. A secondary school was opened to accommodate the graduates of the primary school.
Wealthy families from Kigali and other cities pay prime tuition for their children to attend. Their children might sit beside an orphan whose dad was beheaded and whose mom suffered from AIDS.
Sonrise is at both the heart and head of Rwanda's social and industrial evolution, giving young students the opportunities and education their Western peers have enjoyed for years.
"When the first children came to the school," says Joy Ruberwa, primary and secondary school manager, "they knew nothing of how to take care of themselves. Where to wash, where to brush, to wear shorts." She smiles. "It's hard to believe, but just a few months later, they were new children."
The school now has approximately 600 primary and 350 secondary students, three dormitories, a full library, two cafeterias, manicured lawns, walls painted with murals, and a kibbutz-like communal purpose. The gem of the school is the 180 computers connected by fiber optics to the Internet. The equipment, donated by fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, thanks to members of the Rotary Club of Denver Southeast, Colo., USA, has made Rucyahana's "light on a hill" visible throughout the country. The Westminster 7:10 club refurbished the computers.
Making job creators
Learning computer skills at a young age will make the difference of a lifetime for these Rwandan children.
As Rucyahana puts it, "We are not educating job seekers but rather job creators." It's paying dividends. Last year, Google chose Rwanda and Kenya to pioneer its application package (Gmail, Google Earth, Picasa, etc.) in sub-Saharan Africa. Already, young programmers have founded companies that are offering free texting and instant messaging services, via the Internet and are building Rwanda-made Gorilla 1000 desktop PCs.
The emphasis on a science and ICT education isn't just about finding the right economic niche for the country. It's also about readjusting a mindset and misunderstanding of "truth" that led to ignorance, gullibility, and untrue political theories during the genocide.
"The school is a nucleus around which students, parents, staff, and surrounding communities interact," says National Exam Council Secretary John Rutayisire. "Where the school fails to manage these interactions is the point that allows genocide ideologies to infiltrate the minds of students."
This begins in the classrooms and ends in the dorms, says Ruberwa. "We talk to our students as individuals who belong to our school, not as individuals that belong to one district, village, or tribe."
Social studies teacher John Nzayisenga says teaching history is both a burden and a privilege. "We have many children here who have very real memories of this history. We have tried to preach a divided past but a unified future," he pauses for a moment before continuing. "The computer science helps," he says, "because it gives us a basic common ground. It's the opposite of where we've been, and who we were."
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