Browsed by
Category: Social Justice

Rwanda – Looking for the Good

Rwanda – Looking for the Good

Question: How do you talk about and teach difficult topics, including the unthinkable, the unspeakable?

Answer: You look for the good.

carl-elephantpoop
Carl Wilkens – explaining value of elephant poop.

This summer I traveled to Rwanda, Africa, with the incredible Carl Wilkens, director of the World Outside My Shoes Foundation – and the only American to remain in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Without a doubt, this trip was the most thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, uplifting ten days ever. Each day was beautifully planned with visits to historic sites, meeting with genocide witnesses, government officials (Rwandan and U.S.), community leaders, and activists – now living together, committed to learning from the past and moving forward.

To actually visit Rwanda was an opportunity to step into its past and to witness the power of reconciliation and forgiveness and, equally important, the impact a single person can have when he/she has the courage to step up and take action for others.

Photo on left: Rwanda, landlocked African nation – from Tubbs, CC BY SA. Photo on the right: from CIA files, in the Public Domain.

For a quick, but excellent, introduction to the causes and impact of the genocide, please read my fellow traveler Timothy Redmond’s recent post: Reflections from Rwanda. Tim’s article will also give you more background on Carl’s courage and commitment to take a stand against genocide. Or, if you want a resource aimed at students, download fellow traveler James Ingram’s Never Again, a “textbook” he co-authored last year during his senior year in high school.

Arrival at Kigali Airport - the journey begins
Arrival at Kigali Airport – the journey begins

A large part of what made the trip to Rwanda so memorable was a combination of Carl’s leadership talents, combined with our wonderful team (16 educators, 1 student, 1 pastor), the Iris Guest House (our cozy home-base), our bus driver Peter,  our frequent tour guide and shopping companion Johnson – and the beauty of Rwanda, “land of a thousand hills.”

Late afternoon view from my room of the Iris - and our magical bus
Late afternoon view from my room of Iris entry – and our magical bus

As jet-lagged as we were upon arriving at the hotel (I’d been traveling almost two days (from Sacramento to JFK to Qatar to Uganda to Rwanda), we quickly unpacked, met out front for a getting-to-know-you activity, and then headed out and up the hill for a walking tour of our neighborhood en route to a local cafe for our first dinner together. I think we were all drawn into the beauty of Kigali as we walked past the French Embassy, the President’s Compound, the Hotel des Mille Collines (AKA Hotel Rwanda), all accented by lush tropical gardens. A perfect start to an amazing journey.

Day 1 – The next morning, our first full day in Rwanda, we stepped into the recent past with a trip to Kigali’s Genocide Memorial. Before entering, Carl reminded us to intentionally take “positive snapshots” throughout the day to balance  images from a site that memorializes a tragic event.

Entering the Kigali Genocide Memorial
Entering the Kigali Genocide Memorial

The Memorial serves as the final resting place for over 250,000 victims of the genocide and provides a window into the brutality of this horrifying event. But the Memorial also includes an education center and a beautiful garden that offers visitors, many of them survivors of the genocide, a peaceful place to honor those who died and to find strength in their daily lives to keep moving forward. Click here for a interactive Google street view from a section of the gardens.

IMG_0115 (1)
Garden space at Kigali Genocide Memorial

So although this trip may already sound like “dark tourism” (“travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy” – Wikipedia), Carl guided discussions on why it is important “not to hate evil more that you love good.”  No matter what site we were visiting, we had only to look around and see what a vibrant country and culture Rwanda is today.

Case in point: From the Kigali Genocide Memorial, our next stop was the Kigali Public Library, a beautiful space, from the entry space to the rooftop cafe.

A welcoming entrance to the Kigali Public Library, topped by stunning views from the rooftop terrace and cafe.

From the Library, it was on to the Belgian Memorial, which honors the ten Belgian UN peacekeepers murdered early in the genocide by Hutu extremists hoping to spark the exodus of the UN forces. Their goal was achieved, clearing the way for a full-scale genocide to quickly explode.

Belgian UN Peacekeepers Memorial – Kigali, Rwanda

As we traveled across Kigali on our way back to our hotel and a fabulous dinner, the group bonding was clearly happening. Between our debriefing of the day’s events, Carl’s pointing out key sites from the past and present (including his former home and neighborhood), and the regular injection of humor and hope, our bus became as much a home base to us as the Iris Guest House.

Following a pattern set on this first day of exploring Rwanda, every day was a near magical combination and balance of stepping into and studying Rwanda’s dark past but also marveling at and celebrating the resilient spirit and determination of a country to unite as one people.

On Day 2, our first stopping point was Nyamata Church, a short drive from Kigali in the Bugasera region, to where over 10,000 Tutsi had fled, believing the church and grounds would be a safe haven. That was not the case. There were less than 100 survivors. Within the church, there are over 6,000 bodies buried – men, woman, and children – all victims of a brutal, brutal attack by the Interahamwe (the militia supported by the Hutu-led government). The church also includes a stand-alone coffin that is a memorial to Mugando, a young woman whose violent murder was proceeded by a violent rape, too often included in the genocide toolkit.

Entering Nyamata to honor those murdered during April 14, 1994, attack
Entering Nyamata to honor those murdered during April 14, 1994, attack

As we gathered in Nyamata’s peaceful garden to reflect on what had transpired at this site during the genocide, children from the school next door came out for recess. Joyful voices, laughter, and soccer served as a reminder that Rwanda is indeed moving forward.

View from Nyamata - School children trickling out for recess
View from Nyamata – School children trickling out for recess

How did we find the good after a morning spent at Nyamata? We climbed back into our bus and headed down the road to Mayanga to visit the Millennium Village, a project started in 2005 by a group of visionary professors from Columbia University who sought to improve rural, impoverished areas of Africa by creating sustainable villages through agriculture, education, healthcare, and local business start-ups. The project includes a reconciliation village, where currently about 300 Tutsi and Hutu live side by side, both survivors and perpetrators of the genocide.

We gathered together in a shaded area and listened to villagers share their stories. Silas, a perpetrator, shared that he lives next door to a pastor – whose family he murdered. He shared how the pastor taught him about the power of forgiveness. Silas’s testimony was followed by Lorensia’s, a strong woman whose husband was killed during the genocide. Following the testimonies, we mingled with the villagers, including beautiful children and a dynamic group of women weavers (whose baskets are now proudly displayed in my home).

Another highlight from the afternoon included a visit to the Millennium Village Center, where we were treated to music and dance from local teenagers. What I didn’t realize until after their performance was that we were witnessing another step forward for Rwanda: women are now allowed to play the drums, which happens about mid-way through the dance (shown in second clip):

Day 3 – Had I traveled to Rwanda on my own, I probably would have passed on visiting Prison 1930 (Nyarugenge Prison), based on my U.S. prison mindset. But from the moment we entered the grounds, I knew I was witnessing a lesson our country could learn from Rwanda. Prison 1930 was constructed by Rwanda’s Belgian colonizers. Prior to colonization, “Gacaca” was Rwanda’s system of restorative justice, a system the country has since revived, in which villagers sit together to decide on a fair consequence for a crime. Today, Prison 1930 has moved from punitive justice to restorative justice.

As our bus approached the prison gates, we could see visiting family members entering the grounds – with an absence of security checks. We were warmly greeted by Pelloy Gakwaya*, Director of the Rwandan Justice System. *Note: Rwanda has a 30% rule that requires businesses, including government, to hire a minimum of 30% female employees.

Entering Prison 1930 - A view from our bus
Entering Prison 1930 – A view from our bus

As we walked across the courtyard, what we did not see were shackles, guns, or clubs. Family members came bearing gifts. Joyful greetings and conversations were happening. I had to remind myself that I was in a prison.

The purpose of our visit was to meet with three inmates who were “genocideiers.” We entered a large conference room where Pelloy introduced us to Olive, director of Prison 1930. Olive explained that today’s prison system is structured on community life outside the prison walls. The system provides job training, support groups, counseling, opportunities for service learning, and even leadership roles.

Carl, Olive, and Pelloy - Prison 1930. Photo by JP Bennett
Carl, Olive, and Pelloy – Prison 1930. Photo by JP Bennett

We were joined shortly by three prisoners (2 males, 1 female), all three imprisoned for their roles in the genocide. Sezibera (male) shared his crime of distributing guns and being a genocide leader, although he lost his position for harboring a Tutsi in his home. He asked that we tell the stories of the genocide and bring it to the world. Mulamini (female), who spoke beautiful English, shared about growing up as a Hutu in the 1970’s. She recalled school days when teachers promoted hateful anti-Tutsi propaganda. Although she was married to a Tutsi, who was able to escape with their children, Mulamini joined the government forces to avoid being accused of being a sympathizer. She currently serves as the president of the prisoners’ council and is also the director of the unity and reconciliation club for the women’s section of the prison. Mulamini requested that, as educators, we think about what we share with our students, who often look to their teachers for truth. Like Sezibera, she also asked that we become a voice for the stories of the genocide.

The third prisoner, Gregoire, needs his own paragraph. Having read I’m not Leaving, I knew about the commanding officer whose troops surrounded the Gisimba Orphanage (Day 5 visit) with the plan to slaughter all who were hiding. Carl had also shared with us that two years ago he visited the prison, met with and – 20 years later – recognized Gregoire as that commanding officer. At that time, Carl found it difficult to even have a conversation with Gregoire. Two years later, they entered the conference room together. In his testimony, Gregoire admitted that a plan had been in place to kill Carl. Today he gives thanks for Carl’s heroism and for all he did for Rwanda. Carl responded by telling him he looks forward to joining him on the journey of forgiveness. This is Carl. This is restorative justice. This is Rwanda.

Inside Prison 1930, Kigali, Rwanda
Inside Prison 1930, Kigali, Rwanda

Day 4 – We boarded our bus at 5:30 this morning to head to Akagera National Park, picking up Johnson on the way. Johnson, now 31, lost his entire family during the genocide. Part of the loss included watching his mother and baby sister murdered at a roadblock. Having survived the genocide as a 9-year-old orphan, he still managed to complete his secondary schooling and move on to college, with a year spent in an intensive English program at Texas Christian University. His English is excellent. His story is inspiring. His tour guiding skills are exceptional.

The hippos had a huge presence and made it known.

Akagera National Park - hippo heaven
Akagera National Park – hippo heaven
Hippopotamus gathering in Akagera - not a good idea to get any closer than this!
Hippopotamus gathering in Akagera – not a good idea to get any closer than this! Photo by follower traveler James Ingram.
Left to right, talking with Johnson over sound of snorting hippos; Johnson and Carl capturing the moment; and who knew that hippo poop is actually pretty light and lace like?!
Getting kind of up close and personal with lone giraffe at Akagera National Park.
Getting kind of up close and personal with lone giraffe at Akagera National Park.

A day at Akagera National Park was almost a total break from our genocide studies. Although the park is still recovering from a devastating loss of wildlife during the genocide, the government is actively working to restore Akagera to its pre-1994 rich ecosystem.

The trip back to Kigali included a beautiful setting sun. Being located so close to the equator, every day the sun starts to rise at 6:00 a.m. and set at 6:00 p.m. (“6 up; 6 down”).

img_0518
Sunset on trip back to Kigali from Akagera National Park.

Day 5 – Sunday in Kigali – Following breakfast at the Iris (love starting the day with Rwandan coffee, fresh mango juice, and pastries!), a group of us walked down our hill and over to the Pariossee Sainte Famille Church to attend a morning mass. There are many stories from the genocide regarding the role of Catholic clergy – as upstanders, bystanders, and even perpetrators.

Sunday in Kigali - Sainte Famille Church
Sunday in Kigali – Sainte Famille Church

Although Sainte Famille was not always a safe haven during the genocide, attending a mass there today is definitely a joyful event, with singing and dancing in the aisles an integral part of the experience. The walk back to the Iris was a time to share what we had seen and learned in our first days in Rwanda.

Savoring the Rwanda experience on our Sunday morning walk back from Sainte Famille Church
Savoring the Rwanda experience on our Sunday morning walk back from Sainte Famille Church
So many colors and patterns to choose from - Patricia's stand, Kigali Market.
So many colors and patterns to choose from – Patricia’s stand, Kigali Market.

Next stop: A shopping expedition to the Kigali Market, where we spent two hours, but could have easily spent more time browsing the endless aisles of merchandise. Having Johnson join us and mentor us in the art of bartering was an added bonus. I decided the best way to bring home the colors of Rwanda would be through their bright, bold, stunning fabrics.

From the Kigali Market, we headed to the Gisimba Orphanage. I will remember this stop in our journey for a long time to come. Johnson would now transition from being our market place guide to helping us step back in time to 1994, when as a 9-year old, he witnessed and lived through the genocide. We gathered outside a window where Johnson vividly remembers looking out and seeing Carl coming down the hill with water and supplies.

 

For the orphans at Gisimba, escaping the sounds and acts of violence surrounding the orphanage was not possible, as Johnson shares in this short clip (my apologies for not turning the phone from vertical to horizontal).

Johnson also shared about Damas Gisimba, director of the orphanage, who was a courageous upstander, putting his life on the line daily to protect the children – and a small group of adults also hidden away in a tiny room. Because of Damas, the Gisimba orphanage had truly become a supportive, nurturing, and safe home.

Catching Carl by surprise, Johnson completed our tour of the grounds by leading us into a room filled with people – some of them orphans at Gisimba during the genocide – who wanted to thank Carl for what he had done for the orphanage. Many of us reached for Kleenex as we watched the former orphans step up to embrace Carl and share their memories and stories. How do you thank someone who risked his life over and over to pass through roadblocks to bring food, water, and blankets to the orphans? The group acknowledged Carl as “the sun in the middle of horror who gave us hope” and presented him with a beautiful painting that symbolizes his legacy.

Gisimba staff and former orphans honor Carl Wilkens as their light in a dark time.
Gisimba staff and former orphans honor Carl Wilkens as their light in a dark time.

Halfway through our Rwanda journey and already so much to celebrate!

Day 6 – Murambi – As we boarded the bus for our 3-hour drive to the Murambi Genocide Memorial, site of one of the most brutal mass murders of the genocide, we knew this would not be an easy visit. We began a discussion on how sites can have harsh memories, but if we look back at our evening celebration at Gisimba Orphanage, it is possible to create new memories, happy memories alongside the bad. We cannot erase the bad memories, but we can balance them with the good.

As we arrived at Murambi, I tried to hang on to the many beautiful people, sites, and events I had been inspired by thus far. Looking for the good is a challenge at Murambi, which before the genocide was a school. As with churches, many Tutsi mistakenly believed they would be safe on school grounds. On April 16, of the 65,000 who fled to the school, 45,000 were murdered. Almost all who escaped were killed within the next few days.

Entering the Murambi Genocide Memorial
Entering the Murambi Genocide Memorial

What is unique about this genocide memorial is that as you tour the classrooms, whole bodies are on display, half-decomposed, mummified by lime, which preserved and turned the bodies white. Out of respect for the dead, we were asked not to take pictures. To see the skeletal remains of so many men, women, and children, who in a single day, lost their lives is difficult to take in.

As I wandered through the exhibit hall, I came upon the unforgettable words of Feliciene Ntabengwa:

Hauntingly powerful words from the Murambi Genocide Memorial
Hauntingly powerful words from the Murambi Genocide Memorial

We ended our tour of Murambi with time to walk the grounds, take in the beauty of the surrounding hills, and quietly reflect on a tragedy that should never be forgotten.

Finding solace in the beauty of the hills surrounding the Murambi Genocide Memorial. Photo by fellow traveler James Ingram.
Finding solace in the beauty of the hills surrounding the Murambi Genocide Memorial. Photo by fellow traveler James Ingram.

Our trip back to Kigali included a stop at Sweet Dreams, Rwanda’s one-and-only ice cream shop. We needed that after leaving Murambi. Thank goodness for inspirational stories that include ice cream.  The shop is another success story and step forward for the women of Rwanda. The Sweet Dreams documentary tells of Rwanda’s first women’s drumming group. And the ice cream? Delightful!

Celebrating so many things at Rwanda's only ice cream shop
Celebrating so many things at Rwanda’s only ice cream shop

Day 7 – By now I should have figured that we would be heading off to another day of unforgettable sights and interactions. Our first stop was a visit to the home of Damas Gisimba. Damas was too ill to join us for the Orphanage reunion, so we came to him. For Damas, having his life-long friend Carl and a group of teachers gathered on his porch was a “moment from the heart.”

Paying our respects to Damas Gazimba
Paying our respects to Damas Gizimba

Our next stop was at MindLeaps, a life-changing organization developed and supported by New York City choreographer Rebecca Davis. The mission statement says it all:

MindLeaps creates dance and educational programs for street children and out-of-school youth in post-conflict and developing countries.  MindLeaps uses a kinesthetic-based curriculum to improve the cognitive skills of youth to ensure they can go to school, enter the workplace and leap forward in life.”

Kigali’s program currently supports close to 100 street children, ranging from 9-18 years old. MindLeaps bridges the many divides that homeless children too commonly face. When a child enrolls in the program, the MindLeaps staff provides meals, requires attendance in English and computer classes, and brings the joy, art, and discipline of dance into that child’s life. Children who remain in the program and thrive have the opportunity to be sponsored at a secondary boarding school.

Left to right: MindLeaps students; Founder/Director Rebecca Davis; one last spontaneous dance

We happened to be visiting MindLeaps on home visits day, which meant we were able to split up and join a teacher and a MindLeaps’ student for a walk to the student’s “home.” Travel colleague Kelly Rosati and I joined English teacher Innocent and 12-year old Joseph. Our first stop was at a small stall to purchase rice and beans for the family. We then stepped off the main street and began to wind our way up a steep hillside of mud huts. Joseph lived at the top of the hill, with his mother Josephine and two sisters.

Josephine welcomed us into their one-room home. Despite a lack of common amenities such as water or electricity, she was grateful for this family space. She praised MindLeaps and how this special program could provide a promising future for Joseph. She also praised the work of President Kagame, whose commitment to help improve living conditions made it possible for her to receive free HIV meds.

We boarded the bus for our final visit of the day: the Magelegele TIG Camp.  We picked up Pelloy (prison director) on the way.  The Magelegele TIG is one of 9 TIG camps remaining in Rwanda and houses 124 prisoners. TIG is a French word for “work camp,” but with the concept of performing work for the general public. Entering the camp was another eye-opening experience. Again, it’s hard for me to imagine “joyful” and “prisoners” in the same sentence. As our bus pulled up and we began to unload, we were greeted by an energizing welcome, as the video below captures:

There is no fence surrounding the TIG. The camp guards are not armed. The camp prisoners maintain a garden, prepare meals – as well as work on projects out in the community. On Sundays they can put on civilian clothing and attend local churches. They are also allowed 10 days per year to return home to their families. Restorative justice in action.

final good-byes - Magelegele TIG Camp, Rwanda. Photo by JP Bennett.
Final good-byes – Magelegele TIG Camp, Rwanda. Photo by JP Bennett.

As we headed back to Kigali, just when it seemed an amazing day could not be any more amazing, Carl shared that we had a dinner reservation at Heaven. To find out more about this 5-star restaurant, founded by two expats determined to contribute to Rwanda’s rebuilding, I recommend  A Thousand Hills to Heaven. The Millennium Village is also a result of their vision and hard work. The restaurant’s stunning views and fabulous food were truly the icing on an extraordinary day.

Day 8 – Our nickname for Carl was “master key” because he opened so many doors for us. Day 8 was no exception. Our first outing was to the Presidential Compound, where, after passing through security, we were graciously welcomed to sit and meet with Clare Akamanzi, Director of Strategic Planning. Over tea and breakfast snacks, she led a discussion on President Kagame’s vision for Rwanda:

  1. Unite – one people; everyone has a part of everything
  2. Accountability – to each other; the government to the people
  3. Thinking big – with overcoming poverty a connecting thread

Kagame has set a goal of “one cow per family,” improving education, improving health care. The stats are already impressive: 95% of Rwandan children are attending primary school; 90% of the population has health insurance; malaria has been reduced by 70%.

Clare also addressed the controversial question of President Kagame serving a third term: “Why take away your biggest asset?”

Her message for our students:

“Be concerned. Know what happened in Rwanda.”
“Look at how people rise against all odds, like a plant rising from ashes.”

The U.S. Embassy is a short drive from the from the Presidential Compound and was our second stop of the morning. We had the privilege of meeting with Ambassador Erica J. Barks-Ruggles. The Ambassador compared Rwanda to an onion: “Pull off a layer and you find more. Every time you think you understand what’s happening, something new arises.” She also stated that Rwandans who are over 22 have PTSD. “You can’t get over the genocide because it’s absorbed in your own story.”

The question of teaching Rwandan students about the genocide was raised. It is supposed to be taught in grade 6. I can’t imagine a more challenging curriculum. How do you teach a topic when both the victims and perpetrators are alive and present?!

Our last stop was to visit Pastor Seraya, one of Carl’s larger-than-life heroes, “the best example of servant leadership.” During the genocide, Pastor Seraya, also with the Adventist Church, was targeted by the Interahamwe because he had lived in the Congo and spoke English, two traits common to the rebel RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) forces. The pastor and his wife hid in Carl’s home. On a daily basis, the pastor provided guidance and advice to Carl. His wife left the safety of their home almost daily to forage and bargain for food and supplies.

Pastor Seraya’s message for educators:

“Moving on is to forget; moving forward is to learn from.”
“The power of the word is like a fire. If it is a kind word, it warms. If it is a negative word, it destroys.”

hotel 2
In front of the Iris with Pastor Seraya

Day 9 – On this morning of our last full day in Rwanda, we set out for what we knew would be a tough visit: the Mahama Refugee Camp, “home for now” for over 20,000 refugees from Burundi.  But how amazing that about midway on our drive, we noticed a team of cyclists coming up the hill, quickly gaining on our bus. Carl called to Peter to pull over. We were about to witness the Rwandan Men’s National Cycling team in action – a team that rose from the ashes to move Rwanda into the Olympic arena (You really want to watch this short trailer!), demonstrating that anything is possible.

Before entering the refugee camp, we stopped first at at a newly constructed school built by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in collaboration with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The school is for the refugee children, but also for the local Rwandan children from the surrounding community. This week was actually a holiday for the students, but a group of students arrived to take advantage of special classes to prepare for upcoming national exams. Thanks to the combined efforts of ADRA and UNHCR, the students have access to many services, including tutoring, lunches, and uniforms.

Public school for Burundian refugee children – walking distance from Mahama Refugee Camp.

As I walked through several classrooms, I saw the power of words (via chalk) to portray tough realities, but also to inspire more promising futures.

Finding the good – from “deep doo-doo” ( “We are in deep doo-doo but someday we’ll be rescued by our mighty God.” ) to Bob Marley (“Don’t worry about a thing, cuz every little thing is gonna be alright…”).

The school visit served as an introduction to the Mahama Refugee Camp. Like the school, Mahama was quickly constructed in 2015 in response to the wave of refugees entering from Burundi. Our guides gave us a brief overview of the camp and program and then invited us to tour the camp. We were asked not to take photos, but this short YouTube video will give you an idea of how quickly the camp has grown over the year.

The camp is organized in a progression of housing options. Refugees enter the camp in what are referred to as “hanger tents,” long rows of connected tents, with many families under the same extended canvas roof. After screening for health issues and completing the registration process, they move on to more house-like tent structures, which shelter two families, separated by a canvas dividing sheet. The goal is for refugees to eventually move to semi-permanent homes, which they help construct.

Again, the UNHCR and ADRA work together to provide food, medical services, and education. I think much credit also goes to Rwanda, accepting and welcoming refugees when the country is still recovering from their own national crisis. Life is tough in Mahama, but refugees were maximizing and making do with very little. I wish I had a picture of their tiered  wedding-cake-style gardens, for instance, which were scattered throughout the camp. Vegetables and herbs were planted in each layer, but watering happened on the top layer, so it could trickle down to the other layers. Such a practical use of space and water.

One of my favorite Mahama stories was shared by fellow traveler Tim Redmond. As we walked around the camp, we drew quite a crowd of children. Tim was walking alongside our colleague Kelly, who was jotting down notes (in cursive). Behind Kelly, a young girl was following – and fluently reading aloud Kelly’s notes. Despite the challenges of being a refugee, this child was already reading in several languages. Together, Rwanda, UNHCR and ADRA are making the dream of better life a possibility for Mahama’s refugees.

Our last stop of the day was to ADRA headquarters, just outside the camp to drop off donations we brought with us from the States for the refugees. I know that my donation of clothing and art supplies will be put to good use and greatly appreciated. So proud to be a part of this incredible group of educators and humanitarians!

Dropping of donations to ADRA office outside of Mahama Refugee Camp.
Dropping of donations to ADRA office outside of Mahama Refugee Camp.

Day 10 – Everyday of our journey, Carl would remind us that we would witness both the worst and the best of humanity. Our last day was a huge dose of the best. Our drive to the airport included a stop at an outlying neighborhood that was hosting a cow-distribution ceremony. The ceremony was sponsored by Carl’s friend Amiel, a fellow ADRA worker and genocide survivor, who, in 2008, founded Life Lifting Hands. Across the region, Amiel’s team helps buy cows from neighboring communities to distribute to needy families, one cow per family. A cow represents a lifeline to a poor Rwandan family, as it provides multiple benefits (milk for children, income from selling milk, manure for vegetable gardens, and ultimately money for selling’s a cow’s offspring).

Such a joyous occasion, with music and dancing throughout the ceremony – and Kigali children learning a few new dance moves:

Taking part in the cow distribution ceremony was a perfect exit ticket to an unforgettable trip.

Kigali cow distribution ceremony – Life Lifting Hands at work.

As we headed into the Kigali Airport to start the long flight(s) home, I think we all realized that, given the awe-inspiring sights and experiences of the last 10 days and the bond we had formed as a group, in many ways our journeys were just beginning. Thanks to email, Facebook, phone calls, and videoconferencing, the shared conversations continue, starting with the topic of how we will incorporate the lessons and reflections from Rwanda into our teaching assignments. I’ve already connected with several outstanding high school teachers in my district to discuss projects, resources, and curriculum to ensure that students know what happened in Rwanda, the importance of looking for the good, and understanding that a single person can cross the line from bystander to upstander to change the course of history.

I wake up every morning so very grateful for having made the trip to Rwanda and looking for ways to pass on the experience, inspiration, and lessons learned.

Thank you, Rwanda!
Rwanda … Finding the good!

 

Heading to Manzanar

Heading to Manzanar

Photo by Mark Kirchner

I’m packing my overnight bag for a weekend excursion to the Owens Valley, to visit Manzanar, a former WWII  internment camp for citizens of Japanese heritage. I’ll be traveling with California State University, Sacramento, professor Wayne Mayeda, a group of former internees, students from CSUS,  and a team of teachers from my district.

Our journey commemorates an injustice that began during the spring of 1942, in an act that denied thousands of citizens of their constitutional rights when the U.S. government rounded up the entire West Coast Japanese American community and “relocated” them to mass incarceration camps.

The very talented videographer Doug Niva will be joining me for the trip.  Our goal is to interview those who experienced – or witnessed – first hand the internment experience at Manzanar. We will be adding those primary accounts and reflections to our growing Time of Remembrance website.

So if you teach about Japanese internment and have something in particular you’d like me to research during our whirlwind weekend, please let me know.

A Tuskegee Airman Remembers – An interview with George Porter

A Tuskegee Airman Remembers – An interview with George Porter

I have a message on my cell phone  I will never delete.  It’s the voice of Tuskegee Airman George Porter letting me know that he’d be very happy to meet with students in Martin Billings’ 11th grade US History class and share his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman.

Formed in 1942 amid controversy, the Tuskegee Airmen  showed the nation its black citizens were equal in skill and patriotism to their white counterparts. Although George Porter was never a pilot (due to a health issues with high altitudes), he joined the Tuskegee team as a mechanic.

I met George a year ago, when he came to Mr. Billing’s class to join the keynote presenter Alexander Jefferson for a 3-way interactive videoconference. A Google search will bring up a long list of links for both these former Tuskegee Airmen. For an introduction to George, I particularly like the four-minute 2007 New Orleans Times-Picayune interview posted below.

Before, during, and after World World II, George Porter’s story is one of remarkable resiliency and a determination “to be the best you can be…to be even better than your best.” During the 40-minute visit to Mr. Billing’s class (below), George explains racism, segregation, and living through Jim Crow times, which he refused to be defeated by.

This March 2010 presentation and response to students’ questions will provide you with an understanding of George Porter’s commitment to making sure the public, especially young people, understand how eager and willing he and other African Americans were to fight for America, despite a nation’s long running record of treating them as second-class citizens.

I hope you will share George Porter’s story with your colleagues and students. He does not want this chapter of our nation’s history to be forgotten.

Packing My Bags for NYC!

Packing My Bags for NYC!

I’m heading out tonight for New York City , where I will spend the next two weeks at Columbia University participating in the 2008 Memorial Library Summer Seminar on Holocaust Education. I am already anticipating that these 14 days will be a life-changing experience. Iimage of memorial library at columia university realize that across time there are common threads between the events that trigger discrimination, exclusion, and the forced removal of any group of people. Going into the event, it is my plan to develop a lesson around Ishmael Beah’s compelling story (which I first discovered at a local Starbucks) A Long Way Gone – Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

There are many similarities between the Holocaust and the genocides of the 21st century, but there is, I believe, one significant difference: the absence of the Internet during WWII. In presenting the dark side of history to students, today educators can also provide opportunities and venues for students to take social action. Eighth-grade history teacher George Mayo’s Many Voices of Darfur project and Canadian teachers Jim Carleton and Mali Bickely’s collaborative projects (NECC 2008 keynote speakers) are excellent examples of empowering students to make a difference. Celebrities such as Robert DeNiro are tapping into the power of the Internet, especially video, with powerful pieces such as Armed and Innocent, which includes an interview with Ishmael Beah that I will be including in my lesson.

I realize that the Holocaust Seminar will be an intellectual and emotional roller coaster ride and that, for many reasons, including the  challenges inherent with writing about the unthinkable and unspeakable, not all sessions will be “bloggable” – it is the lessons learned – and to be learned, along with the resources, that I hope to share out with other teachers and their students.

Memorial Library image from: http://tinyurl.com/6xwvaj

Taking a Chance on Words: Why are the Asian-American kids silent in class?

Taking a Chance on Words: Why are the Asian-American kids silent in class?

While teachers are concerned about this lack of participation in classroom talk, they are also often relatively accepting of these quiet students who don’t pose a discipline problem, who turn in homework on time, and in general, get passing grades.

I am pulling a few quotes from Carol Tateishi‘s article Taking a Chance with Words, which she has published with Rethinking Schools. Carol shares insights from her own background of growing up Asian (Japanese-American) in a post World War II era as she observes through recent visits to San Francisco Bay Area high school classrooms “the lack of participation by students of Asian descent in the oral language activities of the class.”cover_200.jpg

In interviewing Asian-American students, she found four shared qualities:

  • Oral Language tends to be used functionally
  • Speaking publicly about one’s problems is discouraged
  • That restraint in talking is valued
  • You don’t talk about feelings or personal experiences

Yet as teachers, we commonly share a very different set of beliefs:

  • Oral language can be used to negotiate meaning
  • Risk-taking in talk is valued
  • Speaking in class increases engagement
  • Classroom dialog deepens learning

Carol points out that there is more at stake than “better learning of the curriculum.” Her concern is how the lack of strong verbal skills impacts future career paths for many Asian-Americans. “It mattered in the 1940s and matters again today if Asian-Americans have the words and voice to speak up for themselves and their communities. It matters if we have lawyers, writers, activists, educators, business leaders, elected officials, and ordinary citizens who understand the power of language and use it”

I will be passing this article on to colleagues whose class rosters include Asian-Americans. As Carol Tateishi points out: it’s easy to overlook the needs of students who seemingly pose no problems.

Time of Remembrance: Move Over Ken Burns!

Time of Remembrance: Move Over Ken Burns!

“History happens one person at a time.” Nikos Theodosakis

Several major projects have taken over my life during the last six weeks (which accounts for my lapse in posting and responding). At the top of my list is the Time of Remembrance oral histories project and website, a resource that includes the living voices of eighteen Japanese-American citizens who experienced discrimination, exclusion, and forced removal from the west coast during WWII.

mary-frances-3rd-from-2.jpg

Three years ago, Marielle Tsukamoto, an Elk Grove educator who has become a friend, mentor, and constant source of inspiration, and I had a conversation about the need to document and preserve the stories of local residents who, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, lost all rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Our aim was to produce broadcast-quality interviews that would be available online. We wanted teachers to review the interviews, select clips that aligned to their grade-level or subject area standards and curriculum, and integrate the clips into sample lessons. We applied for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant in order to cover the cost of a professional videographer (Sacramento Eudcational Cable Consortium‘s own Doug Niva), university advisors, historians, and archivists (CSUS’s Wayne Mayeda, Lori Hammond, Janie Lowe, and Georgiana White), and stipends for our teacher team. We did not get the grant…and that turned out to be a good thing.

leaving-for-camp-reiko-sis2.jpgThanks to much in-kind time from SECC and the CSUS team, and the support of EGUSD Tech Services, and some funding from our Teaching American History Grant, we were able to do exactly what I proposed in the above, minus any of the bureaucratic reporting requirements that are part of an NEH package.

If you have been following the Ken Burns World War II series, you already know that Sacramento was one of the featured cities. Prior to the opening week of the series, Ken Burns came to the Sacramento Museum for History, Women and the Arts for a promotion. Marielle gave him a tour of the Museum’s Time of Remembrance exhibit and told him that the Elk Grove School District would soon have an online collection of interviews with the internees. He asked Marielle to contact him when we went live with the Interview Archives section of the website, which she will do sometime this week when it becomes the feature story for our district website. I think he will be impressed. I am. This project is a perfect example of what can be accomplished with a little bandwidth and a lot of collaboration.

Unlike the War series, the Time of Remembrance Interview Archive clips are available for teachers 24/7 – no cost and no need to ask permission to download and use for classroom purposes:-) . And…there is more to come…We’ve conducted eight more interviews and next month plan to do a walking tour of the remnants of Marysville’s Japantown. Two of our interviewees will serve as our guides as they reconstruct their memories of this agricultural community in the pre-WWII years.

Note: To listen to the interview clips that go with the above photographs, visit Reiko Nagumo’s interview.

Technorati Tags:

Tackling Life – A South Sacramento Story

Tackling Life – A South Sacramento Story

raiders1995.jpg The front page of the Sunday Sacramento Bee features the first of a three-part story that I wish every educator – across the state and nation – had access to: Tackling Life – South Sacramento Raiders. Bee staff writer Jocelyn Wiener has followed former team members of the 1992 south Sacramento Raiders Junior Midgets football team to see what paths their lives have taken in the 15 years since the photo was taken. For the most part, their stories are filled with obstacles associated with living in low income, crime ridden neighborhoods, starting with dysfunctional, broken, or nonexistent family ties, moving on to the pull of escalating gangs and peer-related drug dealings, and ending all too often in incarceration and/or early death.

The story is played out in the Elk Grove Unified School District (my district) and Sacramento City Unified School District (Alice M’s district), but I think the two areas featured in the article could easily and accurately be replaced with countless other urban school districts nationwide. When I look at the annotated map of the south Sacramento area that Wiener has included in the article, I am sure thousands of students in similar social-economic areas could create compelling stories using Google maps to make visible to an online audience what poverty really looks like. I say this after four years of connecting high school classrooms across the state and nation through blogging and interactive videoconferencing in projects that invite students to share, discuss, and ponder social actions revolving around challenges they face on a daily basis in their local communities. For students living in communities such as south Sacramento, the challenge is not so much how to survive four years of high school, but rather, how to survive four years of traveling to and from school, along with the in between weekend events and confrontations.

I am wondering if any of the survivor or success stories from the 1992 team are due to a teacher – or two – along the way who made a difference. For the many that dropped out of school, I’m sorry they never had the opportunity to learn from dedicated, talented teachers such as Bob LeVin, an English teacher at Florin High School, one of the high schools a number of the 1992 Raider members would have attended. Bob LeVin is a teacher who understands the enormous challenges faced by many of his students just getting out the front door each morning to attend class. He cares deeply about their present realities and tries to offer a curriculum that is engaging, while at the same time challenging and geared to preparing students to live, learn, and work in the 21st century. Always looking for new ways to package literacy skills, in the 2003 school year he invited me to his classes to introduce the students to Enrique’s Journey, a blogging project that connected his Florin students to a group of high school students in Lompoc, a small farming/military community in southern California. Pleased with the way the Enrique project offered a voice to many students who rarely participated in the face-to-face environment, Bob was definitely up for continuing the journey. And we did, with the 2004-05 Youth Voices Coast to Coast project.cue.png To illustrate how this project took students beyond the walls of the classroom and the confines of the Florin community, I’ve included a picture from a videoconference session during which Bob’s students joined students from San Francisco’s Galileo High School to co-present with me to a group of educators at the 2005 CUE Conference about the Youth Voices project. I’ve also included some clips from the session so you can hear first-hand how Web 2.0 technologies directly impact students and teachers: one student’s take on the project, another student’s take on blogging; Bob LeVin’s wrap-up.

In addition to involving last year’s students in the 2006-07 iteration of the Youth Voices project, Bob also introduced filmmaking into his English classes, empowering students to document local histories and events. Within months of putting cameras into their hands, many of his students submitted entries in local and regional film competitions. All finished the year with an appreciation and understanding of multimedia literacies.

peewee.jpgBut the deal is Bob LeVin mainly teaches 12th graders. Regardless of whether they are in the Elk Grove or Sac City School District, I hope the members of the 2006 south Sacramento Raiders Junior PeeWees will have the mentors, supporters, teachers, and positive school experiences necessary to ensure that they stay in school all the way through to their senior year.

I want to acknowledge Jocelyn Wiener and her team for documenting and sharing a story that needs to be told. With schools re-opening over the next few weeks, I think this series is an timely reminder of how important it is for every student to feel that he/she is a valued member the community, especially the school community. I look forward to Part 2 and 3 of Tackling Life.

Note: 1995 and 2006 team photographs by Bee photographer Anne Chadwick Williams.

Technorati Tags: ,

Overcoming the Achievement Gap – Can It Be This Simple?

Overcoming the Achievement Gap – Can It Be This Simple?

To pass the time on my flights to and from NECC, I grabbed – and dusted off – a few magazines from my nightstand. The first article to catch my eye was from the April/May 2007 edition of George Luca’s edutopia: Overcoming Underachievement – How a simple writing exercise dismantled negative racial preconceptions. I’ve since reread this short (2 pages) piece several times. The article describes a study run by researchers from Yale, Stanford, and the University of Colorado, with many quotes from lead researcher Geoffrey Cohen. The researchers had a theory that “the disparity in academic performance between white and African American students is partly fueled by a psychological effect called stereotype threat.” To narrow the achievement gap, they proposed using “a simple fifteen-minute writing exercise.”

What really grabbed my attention about the experiment is that the setting could easily have been a middle school from my district: “… a middle school attended by about even numbers of African American and white students, mostly from middle or lower middle class families… this school already had positive forces in play – sufficient resources, devoted staff, academically prepared students…” Nevertheless, an “invisible obstacle” was blocking African American students from “fully exploiting those benefits.”

The 15-minute assignment (randomly assigned with a control group given a different set of choices) was “to choose from a list of attributes the ones they value, such as relationships with friends or being good at art, and write about them.” The researchers believed that allowing students to write about things they cared about would “counter the fear of being stereotyped long enough to boost their grades on the next assignment.” And it did. Grades improved not only on the next assignment, but on their final grades too.

It’s a no-brainer that letting students write on topics that are important to them fosters improved writing. But what jumps out to me is that the significant achievement gains were attributed to a single assignment. Teachers are under tremendous pressure right now “to fit it all in,” but I think they can always squeeze one more thing in if they see the value. I’m going to pass the article on!

Of course, I couldn’t keep from thinking what if… the students were invited to go “live” with their essays in a Web 2.0 environment?!?

Technorati Tags:

“E” is for Empowered

“E” is for Empowered

aa_chavez_peace_2_m.jpgYou cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read…You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride.” Cesar Chavez

It jumped right out at me as I opened the front page of today’s Sac BeeE is for Empowerment. As he did in life, on what would have been his 80th birthday, the legacy of Cesar Chavez inspires those still facing barriers of racism and discrimination to stand up – or sit down – or walk a line – for justice.

Since accepting Kevin H and Bonnie K‘s invitation to contribute to a collaborative digital storytelling project – The ABC Project – I’ve been pondering how to represent the letters “E” and “P” via multimedia. What better way to commemorate (the unofficial) Cesar Chavez Day than by reviewing his life and important contributions to civil rights.

I’m starting by reviewing a set of lessons I developed in 2002 (just before I left the classroom to head over to our district office): Crossing the Line, The Circuit, Esperanza Rising, and Lupita Manana. With luck, I won’t find too many broken links. Somewhere I also have some interviews a group of 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students conducted with several students at Sac State, who themselves grew up in migrant labor camps, along with their wonderful professor Maria Mejorada. With luck, I can find those tapes. My idea is to create a movie using student voices to narrate images from fields of California, where young and old still toil to bring fresh produce to our tables.

“Si, se puede” = Empowerment
Technorati Tags: , ,

Skip to toolbar