The Elie Children’s Project in Kinyinya Sector, north of the Nyarutarama neighborhood in Kigali, started in a very simple way in December last year.
Erica Gateka Matasi had just moved into the ‘locale’ and one day, on a whim, invited two young boys of school-going age to her modest verandah for an informal English reading and speaking session.
“They were 12 and 13 years old, and they could not read, and in my head I confirmed the need. That was the real inspiration. I got some books from friends and watched some Youtube tutorials on how to teach kids, because it was something I had never done before.”
From then, she simply asked the pioneer class of two boys to invite their friends over for the weekly two-hour session. The next class expanded to twenty, then thirty, forty, and today, the class comprises of 70 regular children between the ages of four and thirteen.
“I’m against the idea of seeing a need and not meeting it,” Matasi begins to explain her motivations for the project:
“The first thing most people do is that they try to look outside for solutions and make it an excuse for not doing anything about something. I moved into this community and I saw that there were so many poor and underprivileged people. The first thought that came to my mind was how their children were surviving at school.”
The increase in numbers inevitably called for two things on the part of Matasi.
The first was to get a bigger and more suitable place to hold the class. The other obvious need was to get more volunteers on board, since Matasi had started the project as the sole teacher offering lessons twice a week during holidays.
In January 2015, Matasi was able to move her class to a bigger space –the community house that is being erected right by the communal water spring. She simply approached the sector leaders with her proposal, and they duly obliged, granting the project access to the yet-to-be completed building.
When I visited her class last Saturday afternoon, the children were separated in three different classes occupying different rooms in the building. I soon learnt that the classes are divided according to age group; 4-7, 8-9, and 10-14 years of age.
As we made our way to the class, the kids nearest to the door just sprung up to thrust themselves in hugs against their best known teacher –Matasi, all the while calling out “teacher”, and “Madam”.
She walks in, greets the class warmly, and immediately engages them in a loud counting match. Before long, they are jumping up and down in rhythm as they joyously repeat numbers of the alphabet and count after the teacher.
Two young male volunteers are teaching the children pronunciation and articulation by showing them words to read from a children’s book.
Matasi explained that the rationale of the project is to teach English to kids using creative approaches that favor the expression and development of talents at a young age.
“Most Parents in this community are illiterate and either work as farmers or casual labourers at the local factory. They have an average of 3-4 children under the age of 13 and they are unable to provide extra help education wise due to the fact that they are illiterate and have no time due to their long working hours,” she explained further.
“The children need help with homework, they need someone to help them read, to help them learn how speak English, to believe in them and help them develop their skills and talents to mention but a few. They just need someone to show them that regardless of their circumstances, they can dream big and become more.”
In the early days, Matasi used to get heartbroken whenever she asked the class what their career aspirations were. Most of them said they wanted to be builders, street vendors, or casual hands at the local factory.
“This is sad but a reality and we can’t blame them or expect them to dream big if all they have ever seen in their lives are the jobs their parents do and they therefore think that’s all life has to offer. Even merely helping them understand that they could be more can make a difference in their lives.”
The project was named after one of the pioneer members of the class, a boy named Elie, who passed away in December last year.
His mother reckons how this child was growing so intelligent in the last days before his death. He would go home and repeat some of the lessons at home (head and shoulders, knees and toes). It was after this sad incident that we realized what we’re doing for these kids was beyond just mere classes but it changed lives and made a difference in their lives and the entire community,” Matasi concludes.
Besides equipping the children with basic English speaking and reading skills, the project also identifies talent in them and helps them develop them. They attain basic life skills by engaging in simple skill development activities like craft work as a way of helping to develop their entrepreneurship skills at young age.
Currently the classes are facilitated by a team of eight volunteers that were trained by the Christian Life Assembly church in response to Matasi’s request.
Otherwise she gets most of the materials for the class –textbooks, crayons, paint and painting materials through her network of personal friends and well-wishers.
Classes are held twice a week during holidays (Thursdays and Saturdays, 3:00-5:00 pm, while in school times classes are on every Saturday of the week.
“It’s not something that we want to make money or a big deal out of, it’s really a need that we need to meet in this community because we live in it,” Matasi clarifies.
“We would like to renovate and complete the community house for the children to learn in better conditions as well as buy learning resources and materials for them.
In the long run we would like to set up a community children’s center for the Kinyinya children and provide a safe place for children to come and read and get help with academic work on top of the on-going weekend activities.”