On a lovely May Day in Annapolis, the students in several classes from St. Mary’s High School gathered to greet a group of visiting teachers from Kigali, Rwanda.
The teens were able to ask the teachers questions like “What kind of music do you like?” (answer, Hip-hop like Jay-z and Chris Brown) and “What kinds of pets do you have?” (answer, chickens—dogs are only outdoor animals used for protection) “What types of food have you tried here?” (crabs, hot dogs, baked ziti, and a real surprise, they had never tried grapes before!).
The kids were inquisitive and some even used their French skills to ask questions of the visiting teachers, who would probably answer the same types of questions quite a few times over the next two weeks of their visit to the U.S. The five teachers were here with Connect Rwanda, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping Rwandan teachers learn about and use technology in their classrooms.
In addition to visiting schools in Annapolis, the group of educators took a trip to the beach, which they had never seen before, and to Washington, D.C. and New York City.
Connect Rwanda evolved out of Steve Hays’s family’s year in Rwanda. His wife, Claudia, a local OB/GYN was given an opportunity to spend a year in Rwanda through the Clinton Foundation. Hays’s daughter attended high school there that year, and Hays ended up teaching English as a second language in an orphanage.
He had been playing a lot of soccer while he was there and one day, another player came up to him and said “You know, I inherited this school from my parents, they died in the genocide, would you come take a look at it?” Hays wasn’t a teacher, but he agreed, then spent a week and a half in teacher training.
In that time, Hays grew enamored with the great teachers and wonderful people he met. He was also struck by how few resources they had. “For 1,500 students and 70 teachers, they had maybe, 50 books for the whole school,” says Hays. “And I just thought, ‘you can do something about this’.”
So, when he got back to Annapolis, Hays got to work. He first connected with Books for International Goodwill, but found it would be prohibitively expensive to have books shipped to Rwanda. Instead, he began collecting old laptops from his friends. Fast forward a few years, he says, and the school has about 100 laptops, some projectors and money for internet access.
In 2017, a member of Hays’s church passed away and left $5,000 to the church, stipulating that the money be used to fund an international project. Hays raised his hand and that money ultimately funded his first group of U.S. teachers to visit Rwanda. That summer, five Annapolis area teachers spent six weeks in Kigali learning and embracing the culture as well as connecting with the teachers from APACOPE (Association of Parents for the Contribution and Promotion of Education) school, a private institution for kids in nursery school through 10th grade.
After the pilot summer, Hays gathered teachers and colleagues and officially kicked off Connect Rwanda. The group’s goal is to give teachers in Rwanda access to technology, but also how to use it in the classroom and to collaborate with U.S. teachers.
Smith says these teachers are doing amazing things with very few resources. “We didn’t need to go in there to teach these people how to teach,” she says. “They were already doing their job, working probably three times harder compared to what we’re doing here, because they’re having to do everything from scratch.”
When Smith visited APACOPE school in Rwanda in June of 2018, she was shocked at how much they had already incorporated into their curricula. “Every single teacher was doing group work,” which she thought nothing of until they said, ‘We never had group work before. That didn’t exist.’ In a school of 50 or so teachers, Smith says, everybody—within a month and a half—had implemented some of the teaching principles that they learned from visiting the states.
“I have ‘learned by doing’,” says Constantin, one of this year’s visiting teachers. “Learning by theory the results aren’t always good, but learning by doing is the best way.”
Technology isn’t the only thing teachers are learning from one another through the Connect Rwanda program. After the genocide in 1994 the country has worked extremely hard to prevent anything like that from ever happening again. Rwanda is the ninth safest country in the world. “You can go anywhere there without fear, anywhere,” Hays says.
The people in Rwanda are very serious about their reconciliation process, says Hays. “During their Memorial week everybody’s mandated to go to memorialization efforts. People—perpetrators and victims—sit side-by-side and talk about what happened.” After 20-some years of collecting accounts of peoples’ experiences, they have now built a curriculum built on basic tenants like sympathy and empathy for one another. “So that’s why I wanted curriculum builders to go there to find out what they’re doing. And bring some of that back to Annapolis.”
As this year’s group of teachers packed up and were ready to head home to Kigali, they were thrilled with their trip. “The ambiance, the climate and the environment we were in was very positive,” says Constantine. “I appreciate the way the people and the students were aware and treated us with respect.”
Connect Rwanda is collecting laptops, tablets and phones less than six years old and in working condition. The devices will be professionally scrubbed of all data before they are resold. Connect Rwanda sells the devices to teachers at a reduced price so they can have pride in ownership, says Hays. The money raised from the sale goes back to Connect Rwanda, which helps fund other expenses, like internet in the school and travel funds for teachers to come to the U.S.
In addition to electronics collection, Connect Rwanda sells Rwandan Coffee here as a fundraiser for the group. Gorilla’s Coffee is 100 percent Arabica Bourbon beans harvested and roasted in Rwanda; you can buy it online through connectrwanda.org or at a few local shops.