Rwanda: A Journey of Empowerment


Traveling to Rwanda to field test a human rights-based manual that utilizes theatre to teach human trafficking awareness to children, the author encountered concern that if children were given knowledge of their human rights, then they would challenge authority and harbor a sense of entitlement.

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face . . . Do the thing you think you cannot do. – Eleanor Roosevelt.

The above quote is taped to my bathroom mirror. Every morning for two months before our trip to Rwanda, I brushed my teeth and read these words. I took refuge in their strength. They buried the fears that threatened to paralyze me as complete strangers reminded me I was willingly traveling to a country where I am a second class citizen. Where, the color of my skin branded me as the hated “Westerner.” Where, I would walk city streets with ghosts from Rwanda’s past. And, where hot anger blisters behind the dark eyes of the smallest child.

Funny, I didn’t investigate the above quotes author until long after I scribbled it down and affixed it to the mirror. It is pure coincidence that the bold, high-spirited woman whose words gave me the strength to push forward is arguably America’s most diligent warrior against the things I feared most about Rwanda. Eleanor Roosevelt was a driving force behind “the primary international articulation of the fundamental and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Basically, I traveled to Rwanda as an Upper Midwest Fellow recipient through the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center to field test a human rights-based manual that utilizes theatre to teach human trafficking awareness to children. The premise of the manual is not entirely new. For years, the United Nations, UNICEF, and USAID have used theatre to teach human rights and HIV/AIDS awareness in developing countries. As a professional actor (I started acting at age four) and a former theatre teacher, pairing human rights education with theatre makes perfect sense to me. Most of my teaching experiences involve kids from inner-city Los Angeles and Tucson, Arizona, areas where the streets turn teenagers into adults over night. One of the primary lessons I gleamed from these experiences is that theatre is universal. It transcends race, gender, language, age, culture, socio-economic backgrounds, and personal narratives. Theatre is therefore an ideal method for teaching controversial topics in countries of political unrest that boast a rich oral tradition. Thus, theatre was ideal for teaching human trafficking awareness in Rwanda, where stories are heard not read, and the faces of street children speak of countless atrocities.

The fellowship concept was simple: construct lesson plans that utilize theatre to teach human trafficking awareness to children ages 4 to 12 through the universal human rights principles found in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC). Each lesson includes a theatre warm-up and a “story-drama” exercise from Africa’s own storytelling traditions which emphasizes principles found in the ACRWC. The stories are not simply read, they are acted out by both teachers and students. During the story-drama both the teacher and students take on the role of a character from the story. Then, the teachers dialogue with the students, stressing lessons about human trafficking or human rights. These interactive lessons move beyond teaching human trafficking awareness, and give each child a voice they can use to exert influence within their own communities and bring about social change.

While in Rwanda, my sponsor organization put me in touch with Pastor Paul Ndahigwa. Through Pastor Paul’s contacts, my partner, Mitch King, and I tested the manual with four different groups: (1) street children from our host, Pastor Paul Ndahigwa’s, church; (2) church youth leaders; (3) primary school teachers from the Good Foundations School; and (4) students from the Good Foundation School. Our goal during these sessions was to determine whether the lessons were culturally appropriate, easy to follow, useful, and engaging.

During sessions with the teachers and youth leaders, we asked to hear participant’s thoughts on the exercises and human rights in general to use in the manual’s development. Both groups had their own, unique vibe and took these conversations in different directions. Yet there were two common threads woven through both conversations: First, both groups (but especially the youth leaders) felt teaching human rights was a useless waste of energy. Rwandan society has been consumed by poverty (the root-cause of human rights violations). They felt a society cannot worry about a child’s right to play or to be protected from economic exploitation when its people are starving. Second, each group worried that knowledge of human rights would cause children to question authority and elders. Both concerns were valid and both had to be dealt with before we could proceed.

In many senses, the teachers and youth leaders were right. Poverty is Rwanda’s biggest problem and bringing about its end must be the countries primary concern as it attempts to find its voice on the world stage. We were constantly reminded of this by the teachers, youth leaders, a UNICEF Protection Officer, and the street children we saw roaming the city every day.

But poverty is the root-cause of human trafficking, a crime which feeds on desperation and lack of opportunity. Human trafficking has reached devastating heights in the poverty-stricken countries surrounding Rwanda including Tanzania, Burundi, the Congo, and Kenya. Like Rwanda, all are countries with extreme poverty and histories of political unrest.

The issue is not as prevalent in Rwanda as in the streets of its neighbors. But, the country does have a huge child labor problem. Children are taken from the city and small villages to do backbreaking work on plantations or as “houseboys” and “house girls” in wealthy Rwandan homes. Wages are supposed to be sent back to their families but this rarely happens because the money is often used to feed the child and to pay necessary expenses. It is possible that this child labor problem is actually human trafficking in disguise. However, little research has been done on either human trafficking or child labor and no one knows for certain where either situation really stands. But it is obvious the conditions needed for trafficking to flourish are already in place. If the poverty situation does not improve, it is only a matter of time before traffickers will lurk on deserted street corners, luring Rwanda’s street children away with false promises of food or clothing.

This is why I expected teachers and youth leaders to be enthusiastic about human rights education. My thought was this: if Rwandan children are exposed to human rights concepts through theatre, they will have the knowledge and strength to fight both poverty and trafficking. They would be a generation of survivors. But few of the teachers and youth leaders shared my vision. They could not see past the stumbling block of poverty. Thus, the idea of instilling a human rights foundation in each Rwandan child in order to slowly build a pillar of strength to defeat poverty through their own knowledge and actions meant nothing.

Second, both the teachers and youth leaders expressed an overwhelming concern that if children were given knowledge of their human rights, then they would challenge authority and harbor a sense of entitlement. As a Westerner, this initially perplexed me. Western education is deeply rooted in the concept of free thinking. Education is meant to empower children by pushing the boundaries and teaching them when to draw back. In Rwanda, which was colonized by Germany in 1885 and Belgium after World War One, education is still the question-and-answer system used in colonial times. Students are not encouraged to think about the process taken to get to an answer or ask why something is a certain way. Instead, if the answer is correct (or at least the teacher feels it is right) the student is a success.

Furthermore, since the 1994 Genocide, a dense fog of suspicion has settled over, Rwanda, the Country of a 1000 Hills. The Genocide was largely perpetuated by the Belgian’s who nurtured hatred by mandating identification cards that classified Rwandan’s according to tribal roots – the Tutsi’s and Hutu’s. The killings that stretched from 1959 to 1994 pitted neighbor against neighbor. As the Executive Director of Sisters of Rwanda, Jared Miller, stated that to safeguard order and avoid another bout of killings Rwanda’s current government is a “dictatorship disguised as a democracy.”
The ACRWC, like most human rights documents, teaches that children are born with inherent rights which no one has the right to take away. The teachers struggled with this. Their training as teachers mandates that classroom control is essential. Students should not venture outside the preset lines. By telling them they have the right to express their opinions or respectfully disagree jeopardizes this control.

This became obvious when working with the Good Foundations teachers. It was hard not to refrain from reprimanding teachers who yelled at students who did not answer my questions quickly or gave a less than satisfactory answer. One teacher, even hit a student in the back of the head when he was goofing off instead of acting like an elephant. Yet, oddly enough, the teachers were very concerned that Rwandan children lack the confidence seen in a Western child. They hoped human rights and interactive education techniques would encourage this in them.

Mitch and I attempted to ease the teacher and youth leaders concerns by explaining the difference between the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the ACRWC. The two documents vastly overlap as principles in the ACRWC are largely based on the UDHR. However, the ACRWC’s creators recognized that along with a child’s rights come responsibilities that must also be taught. Otherwise, children might take advantage of their rights, demanding things like a football to play with (the right to play) when their caretaker does not have the means to purchase one or feels the child should not engage in sports for health reasons. Thus, in human rights education, children must be taught that they have responsibilities – including the responsibility to obey rules and expectations set by adults.

These conversations about the teacher’s fears and concerns, taught us a lot about the manual. The manual’s stories are culturally appropriate but the teaching techniques do not work for an African teacher who has never experienced interactive teaching. While the teachers were excited about the teaching concepts, they were shy about stepping up to the plate and trying their hand at it. Their hesitation became evident when Vien, my translator and a teacher at Good Foundations, informed me I would be teaching six different classes in an hour. That was ten minutes per classroom! An impossible task!!
The original plan was that I would circulate from classroom-to-classroom and watch the teacher’s lead their students through the exercise. But the teachers adamantly refused to do this. They were all afraid the children would run wild and did not want to lose face as a disciplinarian by acting like a fool (ok, ok I probably looked pretty dumb when I dropped to my knees in the middle of a field of cows and prayed to the heavens that the Rwandan God would send me food). In the end, a compromise was struck and I taught three classes in an hour and a half. The teachers watched.

Perhaps, this signifies that the best placement of the manual would be with an organization that trains Western teachers to work in Africa, like the Peace Corps or Right to Play. Not only do both organizations train Western teachers for African work, but often they work with children who are most at risk of being trafficked, refugees. These teachers are also already familiar with interactive learning techniques. Less training would be required and it is more likely the manual would be effectively utilized abroad.

In thinking back on my time in Rwanda I am again drawn to the words of Eleanor Roosevelt. My fears were so petty! Wherever you go in the world, people are people. Their government and the political unrest that flashes across our television newscasts do not represent the heart of the country.

Furthermore, I was working with children, the most innocent and compassionate members of humanity. I discovered this after church our first Sunday in Rwanda, when we were attacked by an army of little faces and hands. Their clothes were tattered and soiled. Some of the little girl’s dresses were probably older than me! Dust peppered their noses and cheeks. Many had open sores and diseased spots on their faces or arms. I snuck peaks out of the corner of my eye as they ate crumbs of food left on the floor from lunch. But still, they were kids! They reveled in my freckled skin and the fact that my arms are furry and legs hairless. Girls and boys alike held tight to my hands, and played theatre games with us while laughing at my pathetic attempts at Kinyarwandan.

Like little Buddha’s these children taught me many important lessons and had the greatest impact on my life of all the people I met in Rwanda. They forced me to seriously look at the direction my life is taking and helped me realize this is the type of work I want to dedicate my future endeavors to. Thankfully, I have the opportunity to continue doing such work in America while I finish law school.Mitch and I will continue field testing the manual in the Twin Cities and in doing so, bring our Fellowship experiences back to Minnesota. First, we will test the manual with Lynn Schultz, a teacher at the James J. Hill School in St. Paul. Second, I also hope we can field test the manual at the Human Rights Youth Summit at the University of Minnesota and another human rights related event the University is putting on in October. Third, if possible, we will field test the manual with children from the Twin Cities Somalian community. Finally, in the future, I hope to incorporate my Fellowship experiences into a career in human rights law and immigration law.

Each time I work with a child and teach them about human trafficking and their rights, I will think of that first Sunday in Rwanda. As a young man at church that Sunday said, I love the children of Rwanda. In many ways he was right, I do love the children of Rwanda. But in truth, my great discovery in Rwanda was that I love the children of the world. There are billions of children across oceans and on the other side of vast mountain ranges who are growing up ignorant of their rights and faced with few opportunities. The problems children worldwide face, make my fears before traveling to Rwanda inconsequential. They have not disappeared, only been replaced by other, larger fears. Fears that I cannot do enough to help or that I am not strong enough to take the first step toward helping. But I must try.