Its 8a.m in Nyarusange Cell in Nyange Sector, Ngororero District. Residents are eagerly emerging from behind the rolling hills that dot this vicinity carrying hoes, machetes or other tools. They are heading to the monthly community work (umuganda) that takes place on the last Saturday of every month.
During the exercise, residents clear drainage channels and bushes, fix roads, or construct schools, and houses for the vulnerable.
A few metres away, at Nyange Primary School, another crowd is forming in a compound. It’s a gathering of children. More kids are arriving in the company of their parents or elder siblings.
The children are not here for umuganda. They are instead converging for a reading session, I am told. It’s called Umuganda w’Abana (Kinyarwanda for ‘Umuganda for Children’).
Noticeably, the children are well dressed, as an indication that their parents are possibly taking this seriously.
The excited youngsters are seated on mats under a eucalyptus trees and there are books strewn around.
As their parents go about their umuganda exercise, for them it’s time to read.
Besides the books, there are other reading materials including letters inscribed on manila papers.
Two adults are busy setting the stage.
What’s happening in this cell is also taking place in all other cells in a dozen districts across the country.
The children are brought by their parents or guardians on their way to umuganda and the reading sessions last for the duration of the umuganda exercise. Officially, umuganda starts 7am-11am.
The children’s’ reading programme was launched in January 2016 by Save the Children Rwanda, under a project known as Mureke Dusome (Kinyarwanda for ‘Let’s Read’).
Ferdinand Akimana, who’s volunteering as a facilitator for the reading session here, says the programme caters for children aged 5 to 9.
Officials at Save the Children Rwanda say they intend to extend the children’s’ reading programme to all parts of the country by the end of 2018.
Rwanda has 2148 cells in all its 3o districts.
Reading under trees
The cell is the second lowest administrative unit in the country.
“It only requires passion. I get happy and motivated when children who used to struggle with reading improve because of my helping hand,” said Akimana.
Akimana, along with a colleague, are supported by two parents during the exercise, which involves reading for the children and asking the kids to read as well.
“When children arrive here, they register, they hand over the books we lent them, then they sing and read,” said Akimana.
The reading materials include storybooks.
Children read books of their choice. At the end of the exercise, the children return home with borrowed books to keep practicing from home.
Akimana said the reading ends at the same time as Umuganda so that the kids can go back home with their parents or guardians.
François Uwaleta, a parent in Nyarusange cell, praised the reading programme.
“This programme, other than imparting reading skills in our children, it also has a positive impact on Umuganda and the economy,” he said. “Some parents used to miss umuganda because they didn’t have someone to take care of their children. But now, we know they are not only safe, but are also learning.”
He added that the reading programme is already having an impact on the children’s’ performance at school.
“We see it at home…children are now demanding for books to read which was not the case before. It’s a sign they are picking up the reading culture,” he added.
Eugenie Mukagatare, the director of Nyarusange primary school, said the number of pupils who borrow books from her school has increased since the time the programme started.
“They come to my office to borrow books to take home to read, and when they return them they borrow other books,” she said. The programme, she said, has since inspired her to initiate a similar scheme that will see schoolchildren gather regularly during holidays to read books, which would stop them from loitering.
Paulin Ntawushiragahinda, the official in charge of education in Nyange Sector, said that during their inspection of schools they found that children who attend Umuganda w’Abana or other reading clubs in their communities are stronger in reading compared to those who don’t.
“Before the programme started, 20 children out 50 would read fluently, today at least 40 read very well,” said Ntawushiragahinda.
Here, under eucalyptus trees in Nyarusange, three children are sharing a book. Akimana says the plan is to have a book for every child.
“We only have 100 books for 300 children but we expect to receive more. For now, its one book per three children and even when it comes to lending not all children go home with books all the time,” said Akimana.
The storybooks here are in Kinyarwanda and they include Nkunda Amatungo, Fora Ndi Nde, and Ana.
Akimana also said that the storybooks had been read over and over again which might end up boring the young learners.
“An exchange of books between districts could be considered to ensure children have access to different books,” he suggested.
Mukagatare said they are considering using schoolbooks as a temporary solution.
Ntawugashiragahinda said they have approached school head teachers in the sector to help avail more reading materials to the children in the community.
He urged parents to let their children attend such programmes which he said help them to prepare a better future.
Solange Umwizerwa, the school readership and management support coordinator for Mureke Dusome programme at Save the Children, said the idea was to avail different reading materials to children from households that have no access to such literature.
“But the programme is also keeping children busy. When a child is alone at home especially in rural areas, they tend to wander and can be engaged in dangerous activities,” said Umwizerwa.
This programme is also a contribution toward enhancing the reading culture in Rwanda, she added.
“At home, most of the parents are engrossed in domestic chores, entirely leaving their children’s learning process to teachers. Children’s education is not only the responsibility of teachers and parents, but the entire community,’’ she noted.
But there is another major challenge. “Some parents don’t let their children attend this programme because they don’t understand its importance, more efforts are needed to change their minds and cultivate reading culture among all Rwandans,” she said.
She said the local leaders have been helpful as far as sensitising the parents to enroll their children in the monthly reading sessions is concerned, and in encouraging school heads to allow children in the community have access to schools’ reading materials.