Education Foundation for the St. Vrain Vally Logo

Janet Benter

As I organized out my application for the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant, I wanted to explore how I could enhance the learning of my students by providing them with a comparison of what I already teach in Science to a place they probably were not familiar with: Rwanda. I also sought to provide a seamless implementation of relevance throughout my unit plans & concepts that I already teach as a middle school teacher: Ecology, Genetics, Plate Tectonics, Evolution, Chemistry of Water, Weather, Energy (there simply aren’t extra weeks in the school year to teach “extra topics”…).  The internet made planning exciting! I was beyond thrilled to be selected for the grant. I have been able to achieve many goals outlined in my application and so much more! I am now back in the classroom – hardly a day goes by that I cannot illuminate a connection to Rwanda for my students. The trip itself has also been a personal blessing, recharging me as an educator and as a human.

There are many important similarities between Rwanda and Colorado that have shaped both areas.  Rwanda, “The Land of A Thousand Hills”, is a country of over 12 million people in an area a little smaller than Maryland. It has a low elevation similar to Colorado’s, around 5,000 ft. It’s high elevations are similar to Colorado’s 14ers. Colorado is a headwater state, just off center of North America. Rwanda has the coveted title of “The Source of the Nile” because it provides water to all of Africa. Colorado has 4 National Parks.  Rwanda also has 4 National Parks. Like Colorado, Rwanda’s primary language is English, but French, Kiswahili, and Kinyarwanda are also common.

I flew into the capital of Kigali. Throughout my 21 day trip I realized that all roads lead to Kigali.  Kigali is a modern city, yet not many people have a private car (no one I met had one). The are buses, moto taxis and bicycle taxis to take you where ever you want to go. Rwandans tend to walk everywhere. They are strong and carry items on their heads: water melon, bucket of tomatoes, 50 lb bags of onions, 5 gallons jerry cans full of water.  I even saw a woman with 10 mattresses on her head, no joke! The buses leave their station when they fill up, including standing room. On the bus, most everyone is on their cell phone, which surprised me. Cell phones have recently become an important mode of communication and receiving news. (Later, when meeting villagers, they readily asked for my facebook, instagram and email). I visited the Inema Art Gallery and the Vuka Arts Studios.  I had researched both online before I left Colorado. While in Kigali I also went the Genocide Memorial Museum. Before leaving for my trip, I watched youtube videos to learn how to speak Kinyarwanda greetings. I also read several books about Rwandan culture and the genocide. Aa many may remember, the Rwandan Genocide was a time of 100 days in 1994 when over 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were brutally killed by Hutus. The Rwandans are keenly aware that this is what the world knows them for. But you wouldn’t know if when you visit Rwanda. Rwandans are quiet, patient, thoughtful, peaceful people.  I never had any hint of anything else, even being an obvious tourist in their country (I can’t say the same for some European countries). The sadness I felt after visiting the museum was more intense than I can even describe. The museum does an excellent job of chronicling the years of events that lead up to ALL genocides. There is an emphasis that the world needs to pay attention to these events and intervene when people who cannot protect themselves. After leaving the museum I strongly noticed that there were not many old people in Rwanda- more than one generation was taken from them …

In the southwest is Nyungwe National Park. The 3rd oldest human fossils were found here along the Albertine Rift, where tectonic plates collide. The park encompasses an ancient montane rainforest that scientists think is one of the only places to remain green during the last ice age.  Many plant and animal species came for refuge and stayed!

There are over 140 species of orchids, over 200 species of trees, and over 1,000 species of birds. 52% of all of Africa’s birds are along this rift! The 4 distinct forests are habitat for 13 primate species, including chimpanzees (I heard them scream at me!) and the largest troop of Columbus monkeys in Africa (when I had my thumb out, hitchhiking after my hike, one crossed the road in front of me -> the local construction workers took barely a notice, but I was so thrilled!)  In Rwanda’s national parks one must hire a guide. On the hike, my personal guide was able to point out edible flowers (yummy begonias), chimpanzee nests, poisonous ants, a tree that had been illegally poached for its ‘aspirin-like’ qualities, mahogany and other trees used to make excellent drums and flutes (I brought instruments that our band teacher plans to have students play in their spring concert). The guide also explained that they were reintroducing elephants the park in the next month (from South Africa) to help control a vine that had become invasive.  Elephants had roamed the park before the genocide, when people had to seek refuge in the ancient forests. The conservation efforts in the park are critical with 6 species on the Endangered list, 21 Threatened and 8 Vulnerable. My experiences and photos in Nyungwe have brought to life for my students conservation issues, genetics, biodiversity, evolution and plate tectonics! (One of my students researched online a trail that I should hike- so I did!)

Before I left Colorado, I contacted Celestial Seasons in Boulder. I had researched that they purchase fair trade tea from the Cyohoha Estate in Rwanda.  I was put in email contact with a man named Rohith who greeted me when I got there. He generously made arrangements for me to have a tour of the factory, allowing me to take photos and video to show my students how the handling of the leaves determines if the tea will be classified as black (dried leaves), green (rolled & steamed leaves) or white ( leaves from the flower’s stem, which grows only once a year).  A chemist took me into the fields to show me the best leaves to be picked (the pekoe is the tender top 3 leaves) and their organic fertilization methods and rain barrels soaking peppers to keep mites and caterpillers off of the plants, intead of pesticides. My students who live on ranches surrounding our school in Mead are very interested in my photos and stories. We have also taken our STEM Explorers group to tour Celestial Seasons, bringing our learning ‘full circle’!

At the time of my trip, my son Byron had been in Rwanda for 2 years teaching English and Health with the Peace Corps.   He met me in Kigali and we took a 50 minute bus ride to the village of Rwamagana, (where he collected mail I sent him) then a moto taxi (another exhilarating 50 mins) to his village of Kirembo. When we arrived we were covered in the red dirt that covers everything in the long, dry season.  I was greeted by his landlord Christine, who gave me a big, big hug and brought me into her cheery yellow house for a delicious traditional meal of goat stew with a sauce of tomato, garlic, green pepper. On the side were cassava root, beans, rice and bananas, which were cooked and mashed like potatoes- meat might be had once a month, or for the lucky once a week. There was also a plate of roasted peanuts. Like most Rwandans, Christine is a subsistence farmer growing over 90% of what she eats. Her small yard also yielded mango, avocado, corn, and cassava root -known in America to make a flour to those who are gluten free & must limit their wheat intake. (The root must be soaked twice to leach out deadly cyanide!) She had 2 cows for fresh milk  (a luxury that is always drunk warm from the cow). Christine is a high school economics teacher who lives with her husband, Vincent, who teaches HS biology. While I was there, Vincent was excited to get training and receive one portable plastic lens in a cardboard sleeve to use as a microscope with his classes. He eagerly showed me how to look at the bacteria in our saliva using the light from his cell phone. In Rwanda, an elementary teacher needs a HS diploma and makes the equivalent of 34 USD a month. A HS teacher has a college degree and makes the equivalent of 114 USD a month. In the evening, Christine bathed then dressed up and walked me to the market where a seamstress measured me to make me dresses and also skirts to take back to my teaching partners. The bag that my rice came in was made from a child’s school paper with a short constructed response question about how the Genocide has affected his community (plastic bags are not allowed in Rwanda). I brought this bag back for my students. The social studies teacher at my school has used it when she teaches the Holocaust unit. Due to the fact that I had Byron to stay with, I was able to have many unique experiences that a tourist in Rwanda would not have otherwise: staying in a village where there are no hotels or other places to stay, going to a local market day, having many intimate discussions about the life of a teacher and the role of women in society, learning to prepare local dishes, going to the bar with teachers at the end of a long week, taking questions about my life, waking to the sounds of the neighbor’s goat and Christine singing to her daughter…

My next excursion was to Akagera National Park, a savanna in the Northeast along the border of Uganda. I was able to afford the price of admission for my son, as well as Christine, Vincent and their 4 year old daughter Axela.  This is normally cost prohibitive for a Rwandan, with a fee of 135 USD just for me. Christine was so proud to be able to go.  Somehow she was able to find a truck for me to “rent” for 70 USD so that I could drive all of us there. Once again we were required to hire a guide.  Our guide, Anaclet, was previously a guide for Jack Hanna and Warren Buffet! Anaclet told me he was excited that Americans were considering putting Harriet Tubman, a woman who helped former Africans out of slavery, on the 20 dollar bill. Vincent asked Anaclet lots and lots of questions about ecology and conservation efforts so that he too could pass on the knowledge to his students. The zeal of a teacher transcends cultures! While in the park we met teachers from Belgium and England- but no other Rwandans (which I was sad about)…. We saw Tsetse fly sterilization traps. Their bite transmits sleeping sickness. At the time they had just had control fires with it being the long, dry season (which my students  have on their ranch too, to add nutrients to the soil). We saw topi, pumba (with their comical cartoon-like run), herds of giraffe and elephant, antelope, zebra, baboons squawking from trees, cape buffalo, African fish eagles, and hippos. Hippos kill more people than any other animal. Hippos are nocturnal. They don’t regulate their temperature very well. During the day they hang out just under the surface of the water in lakes. (That’s them in the photo in lake behind me -> more came out of the water every minute it seemed!). At night hippos come out to graze on up to 88 lbs of grasses. They are very territorial. I met Peace Corps workers who had been to a “hippo funeral” in the past year (it’s not for the hippo …).  After the genocide, Lions were reintroduced as a predator to control the population of prey. I didn’t see a lion, but I have photos of their scat! One of my favorite experiences at Akagera was driving at sunset, looking across the savanna and seeing such a variety of animals in one vast span of the eye, without fences, all together as the should be.

From my son’s village, it is 20 minute walk to the Kabirizi Secondary School where he is teaching.  The students stay in one classroom all day while their teachers rotate. I was struck by the starkness of my son’s classroom, with only a black chalkboard. (A recent CSU graduate, this is his first teaching assignment.  He is also a St Vrain Valley graduate: Rocky Mountain Elementary, Columbine Elementary, Heritage Middle School and Skyline High School.) I brought letters from my students at Mead Middle. My students had previously written to their Rwandan pen pals about our school activities, geography of Colorado, family, fun and asked questions. Along with the letters, my students sent books, toys and candy (a favorite was pop rocks).  I also showed a video my students made of a day at Mead Middle School and another showcasing the beauty and activities we enjoy in Colorado. My son’s students wrote letters in reply for me to take back to my students. I had lunch with many teachers while they graded mid-term exams (a meal similar to what Christine served me is to be had everywhere, with little variety). I was able to bring back a biology exam for my middle school students, which showcases that Rwandan students learn the same topics I put on my tests: cell anatomy, asexual and sexual reproduction, flower parts.  Rwandan students learn all this without books, posters, youtube videos or microscopes! My son was grading an exam of interpretations of Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken (which I brought back for our 7th grade English teacher at my school). Teachers asked me many questions about life in America: “Does everyone have a refrigerator?”, “Why do we use a refrigerator in winter?”, “How many people did I know that had a car?”, “Why do I work at a school that I too far for me to walk to?”, “What crops do I grow in my yard?”. The assistant principal wanted to know if I knew many black people in Colorado. On a Friday after a week of school, I was invited to a local bar.  (When I got there, I noted that none of the female teachers were there.) I was offered a cold beer or orange fanta. Both were served warm, with an explanation that the electricity was out. (I never had a cold drink in any village with the same reason supplied each time.) After a dinner eaten with our hands, the men danced in a circle to music playing through a speaker connected to a cell phone. On the weekend, the principal of my son’s school had us over for dinner at his house. He was interested in the geography of Colorado and the fact that I had visited a National Park in Rwanda. Neither he or his teachers had ever been to one. He thought that the idea of a travel grant was very good idea for teachers, so that they could experience what they were teaching and be able to better teach their students about ecology, conservation, history and cultural awareness –

I will be eternally grateful to the Education Foundation of the St Vrain Valley for the adventures I had in Rwanda and for the boost this has been to my teaching career.   It is a continuing pleasure to share my learning with students and my community. (In addition to my school staff, I have given presentations to the Kiwanis, the Allenspark Area Club, the Rotary, a woman’s Heart-to-Heart group, and I was interviewed for a 2 series article in the Allenspark Wind.)  The teachers at my school have been eager to collaborate with me on lessons for their units and also have let me present in their classes. (Below are links to 3 videos I made for our FACS teacher). To be awarded the Eleanor Venture Travel Grant is to honor the woman for whom the travel grant is named.  Eleanor Flanders was a member of the St Vrain Valley School District school board who went on to start the Education Foundation for the St Vrain Valley. If you have not read her memoir The Eleanor Venture, see Kathy at Barbed Wire Books in Longmont for a copy. You’ll be glad you did!

Click Here for Textiles and Clothing in Rwanda

Click Here for Eating in Rwanda

Click Here for Drinks in Rwanda