Jean-Léon Iragena, the young man behind Rwanda’s vibrant literacy campaign

If you follow closely news about Rwandan education, you surely must have heard of Isaro Foundation, a non-governmental organisation backed by Rwandan students in the United States with an aim to make Rwanda the most educated nation in Africa.
Jean-Léon-Iragena. Education Times/ Courtesy.
Jean-Léon-Iragena. Education Times/ Courtesy.

If you follow closely news about Rwandan education, you surely must have heard of Isaro Foundation, a non-governmental organisation backed by Rwandan students in the United States with an aim to make Rwanda the most educated nation in Africa.

The initiative might sound like a dream to most people, but Jean-Léon Iragena, the young man who founded the foundation in 2011, has no doubt his organisation will see this dream coming true. “For us, nothing is impossible. Rwandans are smart. The only problem is that they don’t read. If we can make Rwandans read, that is it and that’s what we are striving for,” he says.

Being a writer himself, Jean-Léon wants his homeland to be known not only as the land of a thousand hills, but also as the land of 11 million readers with the main goal of promoting reading and writing skills in Rwanda. This he did by collecting books in America and shipping them to schools back in Rwanda.

For the last 2 years, more than 8,000 printed books, 10,000 electronic books on 30 Kindles — e-reading devices — have been donated to students and schools. 30 teachers from all districts in Rwanda have been trained on creative writing, and around 45 and writing clubs were created in schools.

The foundation’s endeavors have been echoed both in Rwanda and abroad. For instance, last November, Isaro Foundation was honoured for being among the five most successful students’ organization in the United States of America.

What is more fascinating is the leadership of this emerging organisation. With more than 121 people, Isaro Foundation is composed of five teams in different locations: Rwanda, France, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. At the top of this leadership sits a 22-year-old who happens to be a student himself, but still is considered as one of the most inspiring young people in Rwanda by his peers.

Who is Jean-Léon Iragena?

Born September 8, 1990, Jean-Léon Iragena grew up with his three brothers in Kimironko until he went to study in America in 2010. “I had never dreamed about going to the US until my schoolmates were flocking there en masse,” he says. “That is when I asked myself; if my schoolmates can make it, why not me?”

Since then Jean-Léon rolled his sleeves and studied hard, taking no prisoners. Early in 2007, he became the second best student in the national exams. In 2009, Jean-Léon made a perfect score on his last national exams, and was awarded a Rwandan Presidential Scholarship to one of the top ranked American colleges — Millsaps College.

Arriving in America, he continued to show strength in his academics.

“His love of learning and his desire to share that with his fellow Rwandans is contagious”, said Dr. Susan Taylor, Jean-Léon’s Economics Professor.

However, something else that no one would ever expect from an international student in a different country was to come out of Jean-Léon’s love for his country.

“Jean-Léon is not satisfied to say ‘I’ve got mine. My future is assured. Why rock the boat?’”, said Ken Blackwell, the Chairman of Isaro Foundation. “Instead, he wants to know what he can do to help others. In a world that might make him selfish, he’s a pretty self-less guy.”

When a given a chance, Jean-Léon Iragena would tell you more about his story:

“The truth is that the idea of starting Isaro Foundation was born when I took my first class in the US, but was nurtured over the next year before its creation. I remember looking in President Kagame’s eyes in Chicago talking to the Rwandan diaspora.

“He said something that pushed me further in this initiative. He asked Rwandans abroad to bring back to their homeland — everything they are able to. As a student, I had nothing else to offer. I had to take the first steps and founded Isaro Foundation.” 

When asked about the success of the organisation, he does not hide his weaknesses. “I agree Isaro Foundation team has done a good job, but we could have done better if we had more time and more resources,” he says. “We only have one secret; we use the resources we have wisely.”

 

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