Elizabeth Holmes, 57, is CEO of Excellence in Education, an American consulting firm based in Spokane, Washington State. Ms Holmes, a retired teacher, headmistress and a former faculty member of Washington State University, is also a specialist in curriculum development, technology and online learning.
The American is currently in Rwanda where she is laying the ground for a potential partnership between Rwanda’s Workforce Development Authority (WDA) and Washington State’s Workforce Development Authority.
She arrived in the country last month along with compatriot Wesley Pruitt, Senior Analyst and Legislative Liaison for the Washington State’s WDA.
As part of their tour of the different Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) centres in Rwanda, the duo recently visited the newly established Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Centre at Iwawa Island of Lake Kivu.
The centre has recently been a subject of controversy with critics likening it to a prison while the government came out strongly to defend the initiative, saying it was nothing but a skills development centre. The controversy followed a story published in The York Times which depicted the centre in a negative light.
During their visit to the centre, the two freely interacted with the students (former street children) who warmly welcomed them to this beautiful island, and demonstrated to them their newly acquired TVET skills.
“It’s a huge opportunity for the youth and for this nation. For these students it’s their last best hope for them, and they can be very productive, self-reliant,” said Holmes.
“These youths can also bring hope to this country with the skills that they are learning to bridge the existing skills gap in Rwanda. I am impressed with the facility even when it’s very new and there’s much that still needs to be done,” she added.
She was particularly moved by the fact that the students seemed “very eager to learn and had self-esteem to learn something they can use in the society.”
“Everyone seems very healthy, strong and happy. I see many smiles; they do not look bad at all. The dormitories are well organized and very clean. They (dormitories) are as good as or better than some of the secondary schools’ dormitories that I have seen,” she explained.
She was impressed that the centre has some and nurses and doctors readily available, adding “I am hopeful that they’ll have more available in time to serve their physical and psychological needs.”
Holmes explained: “I think these kids have experienced trauma and have been on the street, and I believe that it’s important to provide many services for them to be successful. I think Rwanda’s WDA as a new organization has done incredible work; it’s very impressive in providing the linkage for education in this country for all to be successful.”
The 87-hectare-island in Lake Kivu is located in Rutsiro District, Western Province.
The Ministry of Youth established the Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Training centre to help empower former street children with employable skills and entrepreneurial capacity.
The training programmes are provided by the Workforce Development Authority (WDA), a government institution responsible for overseeing the implementation of an integrated Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system.
According to Didier Munezero, the Director of Schools Development at WDA, the vocational centre is already providing training in carpentry and bricklaying, with several other trades expected to come in a few weeks time.
Besides carpentry and bricklaying, the vocational centre will also provide training in commercial farming, aquaculture, masonry, painting, basket weaving, handcraft, and tailoring. Others are hairdressing, massage, manicure and pedicure.
About 1000 students, aged between 18 and 35 years, are currently at the centre. Meanwhile, the youths will also train in languages (English, French and Swahili) and entrepreneurial skills.
The students will train for a period of one year including three months of industrial attachment, said Munezero, adding that upon completion, the students will receive a WDA national certificate.
Ms Holmes commended what she described as “strategic approach” towards the establishment of the Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Centre. While the institution was established by the Ministry of Youth, a number of other government institutions including the Ministry of Health, WDA, the Rwanda Defence Force and the National Police Force are involved with the centre.
However, Ms Holmes appealed for more direct participation of the Rwandan population in supporting the centre. “In some way, I feel like these young men are all of our responsibility one step at a time. It takes a village to education a child. This is our village; these are our children, even for me,” she observed.
She also called on the government to avail more training equipment at the centre. Ms Holmes and Mr Pruitt have previously worked together for a programme called ‘Building Bridges’, which supported vulnerable populations including the homeless in the Washington State. “It’s a special education programme that helped many youths who were at risk and had dropped out of school , and that’s why I think the Iwawa centre is a brilliant idea.”
She said that the US institution (Washington State’s WDA) was keen to “create partnership; share resources, ideas and any expertise” that may be requested by Rwanda’s WDA.
According to Rwanda’s WDA Director General, Albert Nsengiyumva, the two institutions could partner in the area of TVET curriculum development and strategic planning. “They are the kind of partners we really would like to learn from and together we will be identifying potential areas of cooperation,” explained Nsengiyumva.
She called on Rwandans to embrace TVET, explaining that “in US many candidates that come from TVET system are hired before those from graduating from university because they’re highly skilled in the areas they were trained and ready for the global workforce.”
The American also observed the need for Rwanda to have a special education programme. In Washington State, she said, education for special populations is strictly mandated, well coordinated and receives big funding from the government.
“My dream is for Rwanda to have a very productive and strong workforce for its own country and to compete globally,” Holmes concluded.