Unceded Territory, Friday, October 18 and Saturday October 19, 2019 – A group of researchers and NGO professionals met at the Liu Institute Global Issues, at University of British Columbia to launch what they hope will be a platform for discussing and publishing critical issues that face Africa in its quest to foster sustainable development.
The theme of the symposium was “Building Connections: Between and Within” 2019 LINA Inaugural Symposium.
I was invited to deliver a keynote on the work Building Bridges with Rwanda has done in Rwanda. It was thought-provoking two-day symposium.
As a UBC alumni I was pleased to see fellow Africans rise to the occasion. They carve up time from their busy schedules and engaged in discussions through sessions, coffee breaks, and lunch to exchange ideas on ways as the African diaspora in Vancouver can shape the future development in our home communities. It is true that as Africans living in Canada, we have the ability to build communities where we live and where we come from.
On Friday evening, one presentation that spoke to me. Two MA students in Public Policy and Global Affairs presented on the challenges facing out of school youth. Children between the ages of 6-11years old, who are forced to drop out of school, or are discouraged by their parents largely because they need help with household chores or that they undervalue education because they never schooled. Of those demographics, children who pay the highest price are girls because families prioritize sons over their daughters.
There are still about 262 million – or 1 out of every 5 – children, adolescents, and youth between the ages of 6 and 17 out of school. The figure rises to 1 in 3 children out of school in low- and lower-middle-income countries.
According to SDG – Education 2030 Steering Committee report went on to say: “Of all the regions, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of exclusion. Over a fifth of children between the ages of 6-11 are out of school, followed by a third of youth between the ages of 12-14. According to UIS data, almost 60% of youth between the ages of 15-17 are not in school.” This is alarming. It should be a concern to all of us because Africa’s future is in peril. How on earth can we reach our Sustainable Development Goals if a large number of our children are excluded from our public schools, or that they continue to receive sub-standard education?
I remember visiting a couple that lived near Harvard University, in Boston. The morning after I arrived, my host invited me to take a stroll and visit their daughter’s playschool. I was blown away about what I observed. The ratio between children and instructors was very low; thus, allowing a healthy interaction between the learner and the teacher. All the instructors had masters’ degrees. I made a note to myself: “this is what a head start in life looks like.”
How in the world will African children compete when they come here to continue their post-secondary education, competing against their counterparts from the global north?
I recall the struggle Rwanda faced in its earlier days of reconstruction after the devastation of the genocide twenty-five years ago. There was an urgency to reform the education system. One can only imagine the heated debate in the cabinet, as the national budget was put together. How do you allocate expenditures based on the country’s needs in a time of national emergency and bring relief to thousands who were looking for solutions? How much does primary education get in comparison to portfolio like health, national defense or national integration? Not very much.
Teaching is one of the most undervalued professions in Rwanda. I heard a story that illustrates this phenomenon very well. Two friends meet after losing touch from each other.
“It’s so good to see you,” Jeanne tells her friend Maria.
“What have you been up to?”
“Maria, the Lord has been good to me. I’m now married and have two beautiful children. What about you?” Jeanne asked Maria.
“I have not been as fortunate as you. I’m still single and unemployed.”
“Oh” she asked: “No husband, even a teacher?”
To fix the problem, the Government of Rwanda invested many resources in building a lot of schools. The government provided construction materials and called on parents and students to build schools. As a result, students no longer travel long distances to attend school. They also put in place school meal programs. They became an incentive for parents to send their kids to school because they know that their kids will be fed.
In addition, they placed teachers into cooperatives called Mwalimu SACO (teachers’ savings and credit organization). As members of the coop, teachers are able to receive loans at low-interest rates. With the loans, teachers are able to start small entrepreneurial projects that enhance the household economy. While the husband goes to teach, the wife is able to sell products that consumers in the community need. Slowly, the family begins to rise out of abject poverty.
Building a resilient society in Rwanda
In my presentation, I spoke about how fifteen years ago I was working at Liu Institute for Global Issues under the directorship of Canada’s former foreign affairs minister, Dr. Lloyd Axworthy. Liu Institute sponsored the Remember Rwanda 10 years after the genocide.
As RR10 National Coordinator, we organized a national campaign to Canadians issues that led to the 1994 genocide perpetrated against the minority Tutsis, the impact of the tragedy and how the country was rebuilding. Canadians listened and said to us:
“We are sorry that Canada turned a blind eye and innocent lives were lost. What can we do as private citizens to help rebuild your society.?”
I took it to be a call to action and co-founded Building Bridges with Rwanda. A non-profit organization that serves as a platform for learning exchange between Rwandans and international visitors. Canadians who want to learn about the history, the culture and the country’s development story join our team. They travel to Rwanda, work side by side with Rwandans using a tool we call development tourism.
Over seven years, BBR coordinated a volunteer program that built a centre of innovation in a small village called Gashora, near the Burundi border. We facilitated learning exchange by visiting development projects and gave them opportunity to learn about the history, the culture and the development story of Rwanda. Visitors return home with a richer experience of Rwanda. They enjoyed the experience so much that many came back bringing their friends and relatives to visit the land of a thousand hills.
BBR partnered with universities, other NGOs and attracted more than 600 visitors with participants from Canada, US, Germany, UK, France, Kenya, Burundi, Columbia, South Korea, and Uganda. These visitors not only learned a lot about Rwanda but they spent considerable amount of foreign currency into the local economy. A healthy partnership between the visitors and locals was ignited. Several Rwandan students benefited from the visitors' sponsors. We helped them access education opportunities from primary, secondary and tertiary levels.
Perhaps the most rewarding experience for me as a Canadian Rwandan who had lived outside my country for most of my life was the opportunity to spend quality time with my mother before she passed on. I was also able to help the future of my fellow Rwandans pursue their education dreams. Two of my proteges were able to come to the Pacific Northwest and continue their education.
Cedric Habiyaremye built on the work BBR began working with residents of Gashora to fight malnutrition through the train of trainers’ workshops and engaging community residents to understand the connection between food security, nutrition, and wellness. Cedric was given a scholarship to do his masters at Washington State University’s College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resources Science. His MSc research was ambitious research that explored how superfood quinoa could be brought to Rwanda as a solution to the problem of malnutrition. The government was very interested and supportive. He has recently defended his Ph.D. dissertation and has opened a company called QuinoaHub Ltd., where he worked with farmers to grow the superfood crop and sell the product in the country to combat malnutrition.
Through his involvement as a BBR volunteer, Steven Kega was sponsored by friends of Building Bridges with Rwanda to continue his education at Thompson River University, in Kamloops. Steven was inspired by the work BBR did in sustainable agriculture. He is now completing his MSc research, exploring the opportunity to integrate the forest and ranching industries, to enhance both forestry and grazing practices so that forest production and understory forage productivity can be fully realized.
I’m both encouraged and delighted to see a growing interest by the African Diaspora to play an active role in lining their current research to the sustainable development of Africa. We will be keeping an eye on ways we can continue to build an active role for African academics and NGO practitioners to collaborate in making their work as organic fertilizer for Africa’s sustainable development.