Small beams of light shine through the corrugated tin roof, reflecting white freckles upon the little mud-streaked faces of students happily singing, “Thank you good, thank you good” at the top of their lungs.
Aside from the open wooden shutters, this is the only light in the barren, cement-walled classroom. The children are gathered on a cluster of wooden benches and desks. A white woman praises them with generous applause before writing “good” and “God” on the chalkboard.
“The word is ‘god,’ like ‘gahd,’” she says, emphasizing the pronunciation. “Thank you God, thank you God.” A small girl, about five years old, with pierced ears and a dirty dress joyously yells “Gawd! Gawd!”
“Yes!” says the woman smiling, “just like how an American pronounces it!” She squeezes a few tiny hands, outreached from the small mob, before leaving the classroom. Worn plastic thermoses lay strewn about the grey floor.
Annemiek Miller is the education advisor for the schools run by the Kigeme Diocese of the Rwandan Episcopalian Church – a job she says she created herself after witnessing the need for nursery schools in the country.
After teaching high school French for 32 years, Miller, a Canadian, retired early at age 57 and became a volunteer for Voluntary Service Overseas Canada, a non-governmental organisation that sends people from developed countries to share their skills and training with people in underdeveloped nations.
She submitted a funding proposal to support nursery-level education to the Dutch embassy in December 2006, receiving €12,000 (approx. Frw9m) to combine nursery and primary school programmes.
Most Rwandan children begin school at age seven, entering first grade with no experience in a learning environment, let alone basic reading and writing skills. Half of the students are held back to repeat the first grade, with many even dropping out of school entirely, encouraged by their parents to stay home instead.
In collaboration with the Diocese’s schools, Miller has successfully opened 17 nursery classrooms, attached to the 40 primary schools in the district. She says there is more work to be done and while she has already been in Rwanda for the past two years, renewing her contract for a third year, she is in the process of handing it over to Janne D’Arc Kamaraka, Kigeme’s coordinator.
“It’s important the project be run by a Rwandan,” she says. “I find it thrilling to give a Rwandan woman a job that matches her competence and see her do the job well and growing – she probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise.”
Kamaraka has proven to be a successful candidate, with over 20 years teaching experience. She is currently holding school meetings to raise awareness about the importance of nursery school education.
One of the issues she talks to parents about is keeping the children at home instead of sending them to school where they can thrive, learning in a safe atmosphere.
Staying home can be more of a danger than a refuge for many young children because they are often locked outside (in order to use the toilet) after their parents leave to work in the fields, leaving them vulnerable to horrific crimes, often sexual. Thanks to Kamaraka’s campaign, residents have become conscious of these acts.
“The rate of violent crimes towards helpless children has decreased with awareness,” says Kamaraka. “Society in general has become more vigilant.”
No funding for nursery school
In addition to the parent’s and community’s need to understand, funding continues to plague the program, the main root of the problem.
The Ministry of Education funds primary schools, but has left nursery schools grasping for straws. They advocate the need for them but still have not made any commitments to support them now or in the future.
The Minister of Education could not be reached for comment. This lack of support has caused difficulty in getting the parents onboard, as they are left to take the initiative to start nursery school programmes that quickly shut down due to lack of funds to manage and maintain them.
Primary school teachers’ monthly salary recently increased from Frw24,000 to Frw36,000 – a nursery school teacher makes a mere Frw17000 per month and is not paid for by the state.
“The citizens of the poor rural countryside think nursery schools make no sense,” says Miller.
“And why would they, when they have to pay for the teacher’s salary out of their own pockets, barely able to feed themselves? It’s better for them to simply wait for their child to turn seven and enter grade one because education is state-funded and free.”
Miller and Kamaraka’s battle to raise awareness is making strides, stressing the benefits of nursery education as preparing children for success in primary school, encouraging early social and intellectual development, and providing a ‘day care’ for otherwise vulnerable children.
“The advantages for children at this school are numerous,” says Mariette Mukarukundo, one of the two nursery school teachers at Kigeme.
“Being here allows them to get used to a schedule, sit and learn how to function in a group, eliminate shyness and prepare them for first grade because they are more confident. Children learn to express themselves freely because they wouldn’t get a chance to do so if they stayed at home.”
Basic hygiene including washing your hands after using the toilet is taught and hopefully transferred to the home front, along with other practical life skills.
Translating the students’ success to parents may be difficult, but the director of the school, Jean Pierre Ndagijimana, doesn’t need convincing. He is a strong supporter of the project, endorsing its value in building intellectual capacity.
“I see a difference in students that have been here for one to three years because a child entering grade one without nursery school does not have the same success in school as a child with nursery education,” he says.
“Their behaviour is also different.”
Miller has also started a school feeding programme because many of the students eat only once a day. A nutritious meal allows the students to be more attentive and fosters brain development. Those who are fortunate enough to bring their own lunches are separated from the other students.
“The poorer children were told to wait outside while the others who brought food ate inside the classroom,” says Miller. “I was astounded!”
During one feeding, over one hundred children sipped porridge happily from plastic cups. A flour mixture to make porridge is distributed and prepared at schools.
Hiring a cook and building a kitchen however is expensive, especially considering the cost of building supplies such as cement bricks.
Help is still needed at the schools that are not able to make the porridge as Miller says she suggested a more fortunate family making a large batch at home and bringing it to the school.
When the dry mixture is simply given to the kids to take home, they can’t be sure who will be benefiting from it. Miller’s project has assisted the town’s residents as well, creating new jobs for local carpenters who construct the school’s furniture and toys from wood.
Other teaching materials include banners made from white plastic rice sacks, painted with colourful numbers and letters of the alphabet. These learning tools are also contracted to local women.
Large numbers in class
Aside from scarce resources, teachers are also dealing with the problem of crowded classrooms and managing groups of children at different learning levels.
Both nursery classrooms at Ndagijimana’s school have about 41 children each. In one, only 35 have shown up today, illustrating another problem in the rural areas of keeping kids attending.
There are 1,219 students here, with over 300 in the first grade. He says there tends to be a huge drop in attendance as the children progress to the higher grades. Currently, there are 126 students in the sixth grade and it is not known if they will go on to secondary school.
Rwanda is a donor-dependent country and more changes still need to occur. Miller realizes a lack of infrastructure and finances creates a complex foundation for any sort of efficient decision-making or alterations, but efforts are “just a drop in the bucket.”
“I’m probably pessimistic,” she says. “But you look at the faces of some kids and they’re so bright – like the little girl saying ‘god’ in an American accent!”