It was a beautifully warm and sunny day in Lucerne, Switzerland and Ngabo Jean de Dieu wanted to take full advantage of it. He had only just recently gotten off the plane from Kigali, ready to make a new start and begin pursuing his studies in hotel and tourism management.
That day, as hundreds of bronzed bodies lay on the white sand also hoping to take advantage of the searing sun, de Dieu strolled along the beach. He lost track of time, but surely, he thought to himself, the sun was such that it couldn’t be later than three o’clock.
Jean de Dieu returned home to his room on campus only to discover that it was, in fact, nine o’clock and he had missed dinner.
“The weather was my first surprise,” he says, and only the first of many more to come.
34-year-old de Dieu hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo, but moved with his family to Rwanda at a young age. They were fleeing a troubled country in search of a brighter future, and that is exactly what de Dieu found in Rwanda.
Today, despite his affinity for ndombolo – a style of fast-paced Soukous music that originates from the DR Congo – de Dieu considers himself Rwandan in every sense of the word.
When the Rwanda Ministry of Education offered Jean de Dieu a scholarship to study abroad, he jumped at the chance. But he quickly realized that school was going to be the least of his worries.
“Life, it’s quite difficult to get used to the first days when you are there,” says Jean de Dieu.
“But in Rwanda there is a proverb that says if you want a cow, you have to live like one. So once you get to Europe, you have to get used to their life.”
That is exactly what de Dieu spent three years trying to do – getting used to life in Switzerland. And although it was a long way away from his home in the rolling hills of Rwanda, de Dieu was determined to adapt to the challenges of his new home away from home. Those challenges began in his dorm room.
“My first roommate was Indian,” recalls de Dieu, “and neither of our English was very good so we were just talking to each other with body language. It was not easy for me.” On top of that, says Jean de Dieu, he had to learn how to live on his own – and fast.
“You have someone to look after you at home. You have someone to wash clothes for you, to cook food for you, but in Europe, you have to do everything by yourself.”
No sooner had de Dieu gotten used to cleaning and cooking for himself than he was hit with his biggest challenge yet: “winter time,” he says.
“It’s very difficult to get used to.” So why did he want to go through with it? Why did de Dieu continue to suffer the weather and stick it out in Switzerland when he could have gone home to his cook, his maid, and his warm, sunny climate? Because, he says, it was all worth it.
“Here, in Rwanda, I think they give more importance to students who studied in Europe or America than those students who studied here,” says de Dieu.
“So, when you come with a diploma from Switzerland or Canada, it gets more value than it does here.”
But just how deserved is that value? Are degrees from overseas rightly given a higher worth?
Jean de Dieu isn’t sure. On the one hand, he says, “They have all the materials you need to be successful at school. They have professional teachers and books, the materials and projectors, while here in Rwanda you don’t have all these.”
“It’s not easy to get them and sometimes you have to make photocopies of the handouts or you share one book with, let’s say, ten students, while in Europe every student has his own book and his own materials.”
However, lack of resources aside, de Dieu suggests that Rwanda has made great strides in its education system in the past fifteen years.
“People have this perception that studying overseas is more valuable, but I can assure you that education in Rwanda is better now than before the Genocide,” he says.
Indeed, while the National University of Rwanda was the only public tertiary institution in the country before the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, nineteen other public and private institutions have sprung up in the years since, including the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), the Kigali Institute for Education (KIE), and the Kigali Health Institute (KHI).
“For now,” says Jean de Dieu, “there is not a big difference between universities here and in Europe or Canada or the U.S.” Nevertheless, it remains clear that higher education is still something of a luxury in Rwanda.
In 2005, out of a population of 9.7 million, there were just 26,796 students enrolled in universities across Rwanda. The number of Rwandans who travelled overseas to attend university is even smaller.
While trends show that South Americans favour going to Europe or North America for schooling, the few African students who do travel for university mainly do so within their own continent.
Of course, that is largely a result of a lack of financing. Students cannot afford to go to universities, let alone those overseas, because of the associated costs.
To that end, the Government of Rwanda created the Bursaries and Loans Commission in 2002 to help support student financing, but there is still a long way to go.
When Jean de Dieu’s three years of studies in Switzerland were up, it came time for him to decide whether or not to return home. But for Jean de Dieu, there was no question at all in his mind as to where his future lay.
“I wanted to come back home,” he says.
“I was paid by the Ministry of Education. I wanted to give back what I’d been given by the government to contribute to the development of my country.”
For de Dieu, the greatest benefit of studying abroad was that it gave him the ability to go back to Rwanda and make a difference. Today, de Dieu works for a Kigali-based eco-tourism company.
The greatest part about his job? Getting to work directly with communities and helping support their own local micro-enterprises and initiatives.
“I am very happy that I’ve come back. Often I go to Europe but for vacations,” he says.
“I advise people to study abroad and come back to work and help build their country. Because those countries are already developed and they don’t really need them over there. They have their own experts, so they are most needed in their own country, not in Europe.”
Jean de Dieu’s sentiments are music to the ears of many African leaders, who have become pre-occupied of late with the severe brain drain that has affected the continent.
Particularly in West and Southern Africa, people are taking their education and beginning to work overseas, and they’re not coming back.
The problem has even attracted the attention of international agencies and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), all of which have called for measures to reverse the phenomenon.
But Jean de Dieu would have it no other way, and now he sees a bright career ahead of him. He plans to one day open his own restaurant in Kigali, and believes that his education abroad has given him the tools he needs to do so.
“To get there, to learn to live on your own, to meet other people from different countries,” he says, “all of that is helping me a lot with my career.”
But above everything else, de Dieu is just happy to be home, back among the people and the culture he knows. That was, after all, the one thing he missed most while he was gone.
“The way we live in Rwanda is quite different from the way I was living in Europe,” he says.
“There, everyone minds his own business, while here in Rwanda, we help each other. It’s not the kind of friendship that we have here in Rwanda. When you get a problem, everybody participates in helping you.”
“That kind of life I like.”