Trustee Chris Neill Reflects on First Trip to Rwanda

Having been involved with Together in Sport as a trustee since the charity was founded, I have finally achieved my ambition to travel to Rwanda.

Armed with a chunky “to do” list, Kari and Sue Spence and I set off last Thursday for our adventure!! Having had lots of feedback from previous trips, I felt semi-prepared for what I was about to experience, but being in the country itself has been so incredibly eye-opening.

To me, Rwanda seems to be a land of marked contrasts…

The sprawling metropolis of uptown Kigali, with its trendy bars, restaurants, luxury hotels and edgy conference centres. The shabby, crammed-in, makeshift buildings downtown. Everywhere is bustling. People going about their business or standing in groups talking. Police are on every corner and every road junction. Huge numbers of police, some armed – we were pulled over by armed police because our taxi driver had tinted windows!! People are working on building sites, up wooden scaffolding lashed together with string. And the free-for-all driving….!! So in one sense very ordered and, in another, no apparent rules.

Driving out of Kigali towards Bugasera, women line the busy highway sweeping dust off the road, or are bent double weeding the central reservation. Coming off the main road onto the bumpy dirt track towards Faith and Hope, it is as though you are in a completely different country. Women in most of the fields with machetes in the heat of the day.

Arriving at school to a sea of smiling, excited faces. Introductions and reunions in every class. Hugs for Felix, the headteacher, and being proudly shown the sports field (with its newly-sown grass and wondering at how miraculous it is that anything could possibly grow on that dusty field…) Seeing the much needed new kitchen and walking around the piece of land which, in time, will become the girls’ vocational hub.

I was lucky enough to be there on one of the two days on which the children are given breakfast as part of our food programme. Smiling faces eagerly awaiting their mug of porridge before going to play on the sports field until all 500 had been fed. Then all the children filed back to class, some coming back outside carrying their desks to sit an English test in the open air. Felix was very heartened when he got the national results for all Rwandan schools, as Faith & Hope has recorded the most improved results in the area and higher than some of the private schools.

Primary education in Rwanda finishes after P6 when, if secondary education can be afforded, children have to travel great distances at great expense. Far more boys receive secondary education than girls, large numbers of girls leaving primary school with very poor prospects and are to be found working in the fields for wages amounting to £1 per day. Following our last few trips to Faith and Hope, the charity has been trying to find a way to increase the chances of girls being able to find better-paid employment by offering tuition in relevant skills, possibly leading to a recognised vocational qualification. The idea of a girls’ vocational hub was born and has become increasingly important.

Luckily, whilst helping local women to clear an area of charity-owned land, we had a very interesting conversation (via our Rwandan interpreter). We asked the women which new skills did they feel would be the most useful with regard to employment. They all agreed on four main areas : cooking, sewing, hairdressing and nails.

Coincidentally, the previous day Kari, Sue and I had visited a successful women’s centre in downtown Kigali. This had started very small, in a room in someone’s house with three donated sewing machines. There women and girls were taught basic sewing and cooking techniques, with a view to making to sell. Gradually profits were ploughed back in, the co-operative developed and expanded into downtown premises with over thirty women regularly making garments, soft furnishings and other crafts. All-in-all, a very successful and inspiring set up…food for thought in our plans for a much-needed dedicated girls’ space.

Sorting the pants and pads donated by friends in the UK into bags, we were all touched by the generosity of the many people who had donated. Our plea seemed to really strike a chord with so many, and would make a huge a difference to the older girls and young teachers each month. The charity is extremely grateful to the companies who played a large part in making the launch of this project such a success. Tots and Bots and Bloom and Nora for their innovative reusable sanitary pads and Tesco, Galashiels for donating packs of pants. After a slightly embarrassed start, the girls and teachers soon embraced the concept of these unfamiliar products and, by the end there was much hilarity as they set off back to class, each proudly sporting a discreet and attractive shoulder bag. This project will continue with successive visits to school, the next one being this July, and will also become an integral part of the future girls vocational hub, which is really exciting.

Our meeting with the CEO and drilling manager at the headquarters of Living Water International in Kigali was very inspiring, and made the prospect of a fresh water well at the school close to being a reality. We also drove the 5km to the lake which everyone in the area has to use. I can’t imagine walking there regularly, collecting filthy water in jerry cans which have to be hauled home up a rutted, dusty road in the baking heat…this well is going to be literally life-changing and we have a date in the diary for drilling to begin in July this year!!!

Exciting times!!!!

Chris Neill, TiSR trustee on her very first visit visit to Rwanda.