I’ve just returned from a trip to Rwanda, where I met with the staff of Wellspring, the organization I am privileged to lead. Our work is in education in East Africa, mostly in Rwanda, a place I have visited many times. Yet for some reason, this trip hit me harder than ever and I think I came deeper into contact with God’s heart for the poor there than on any of my previous visits.
We’ve been working mostly in the region of the capital Kigali, where we’ve taken one of the school districts as a model to help show what education can look like. It’s been a wonderful, rich time and we’ve seen schools be transformed as we’ve worked with leaders, teachers, parents and students to prefer worth and dignity on them, as well as to be part of transforming the education system at both a grassroots and national level. I think I’d gotten a bit used to seeing improvements at the level I have over the last five years. But on this trip, I visited the district of Rubavu, way out to the west of Rwanda, right on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. And what I learned shocked me.
In one school, I found 800 students in six ramshackle classrooms, with no books, no electricity, and just a few desks they were huddled around. A teacher was doing his best to try and control them — and due to some influence we had had there on a pilot project, there had been some changes. Yet kids were still being beaten with sticks and the lessons were rudimentary at best. Most of those kids came from situations of absolute poverty, way beyond what I am used to in the capital region, and I could see it all around in the surrounding village and the school itself.
Yet it wasn’t this that got to me. This was bad, but I had seen things like it before. No. What got me was the girls. Where were they?
You see I walked into the P1 class and there were 115 students there. I was told that there would be another 115 coming in the afternoon. That’s 230 students, all taught by one teacher. As I looked at them, I could see a good gender mix, maybe slightly more girls than boys. Whilst the conditions were atrocious and the resources minimal, there was a hunger to learn and see change. So, when I walked 50 meters along the narrow one story building to the P6 class, I expected to see something similar. But I didn’t. There were about 50 students and only about five of them were girls. Where had they all gone?
As I asked questions, I found out that the reason why there were such smaller numbers in P6 than P1 was that there was a far higher than usual dropout rate. The poverty in this area renders families unable to pay for school uniforms and exams — and the education has been so basic that many families haven’t felt it worthwhile to make the sacrifice of putting their kids into school. So, many parents have pulled them out to work on the family plots of land or to look after the kids while they try to make some money, often by travelling into the Congo.
And who suffers most? The girls. Boys’ education has traditionally been prioritized by families. Many parents don’t see the value as the object is to get the girl married off and settled. So, many girls are pulled out to care for the younger children so that parents can try and make enough money to put food on the table, which is often as little as a few potatoes and sometimes nothing at all. As a consequence, those girls have little hope. Teenage pregnancy is a huge issue, girls are being disowned and made homeless and are at much higher than average risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Many are turning to prostitution in this border town and the district has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the country.
But it wasn’t all the information I was finding that rocked me. It was one single moment where it all came home to me. In the terrible conditions of that P1 classroom, I saw a ray of light coming through a crack in the shutters over a window. It fell on the face of one little girl. To me, she represented all I was hearing and seeing. What would her future be? What was her path? And in that moment, I sensed Jesus in that room. I realized it wasn’t about me, or Wellspring or being a savior or wanting to fix things. It was about the fact that Jesus had been there all along and that he was inviting us to join Him. Because He loves these kids and wants to see them given the same dignity, to be treated with the same worth, to be loved in the same way that He loves all of you reading this blog, whether you know it or not. Every one of those girls on the edge of dropping out, every teenager dealing with an unwanted pregnancy and at danger of being disowned or being exploited today, every one of those women being beaten, is loved. Every. Single. One.
And we are loved too. Because we are just as poor and broken in our own way. And we need to be made whole as well.
Over the years I have realized that those we often think of as the least, those who by Western standards have nothing, are some of the most wonderful and brightest lights in the universe. So, it’s not that I want to let my light shine on them, to try and make things better in my own strength, to be the one with all the answers. I can’t be. I don’t have them. It’s that I want to have the privilege of joining with these wonderful communities in my brokenness, so that together, we might experience that ray of light shining on our faces that comes from God’s huge and compassionate heart for the poor. That together, we might be part of restoring some of the brokenness of this world and that in that we might all find our own redemption and healing.
It’s a long journey to freedom and we sometimes struggle to stay on the path. But in following in his footsteps, in searching out the rays of light, in understanding our own poverty as we walk alongside each other, may we find the courage to continue onwards to the place where we find salvation. Not just for that little girl, but for us all.
Note: During this trip, Wellspring made a commitment to be in this district for the next five years, to join with God and our Rwanda brothers and sisters as we work in all the 86 primary schools with 90,000 plus students. We plan to do everything we can to get these kids the education they deserve, to see girls treated with fairness and equity, to see teachers becoming community leaders, parents engaged and contributing and this whole area transformed as they unleash the raw power of a new generation.