The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 31, 2009

 

Maureen Ruettgers on Rwanda: never lose courage

Students with Madam Jeannette Kagame. (Courtesy Photo)

 

In early June of this year, President and Mme. Paul Kagame of Rwanda were in Boston receiving a UNICEF Children’s Champion award, and they took time to pay a visit to their friends in Carlisle, Maureen and Mike Ruettgers, who were the lead sponsors of the UNICEF event. Mme. Kagame had paid another visit to the Ruettgers home on Bedford Road last September, when the Ruettgers hosted over 250 people for a special fundraising event that honored her and netted over $1.2 million for Dr. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health program and for the Maranyundo Initiative. The latter is a project in which the Ruettgers family is closely involved and which has resulted in the establishment of a school for girls. Both of these programs are central to helping Rwanda recover from the horrific 1994 genocide that killed over 800,000 of its people and decimated its infrastructure.

Maureen Ruettgers speaks with wonder and excitement about Rwanda’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of its tragic history. “Our daughter, Polly,” she says, “really encouraged our family to think that [supporting Rwandan recovery] would make a huge difference.” The Ruettgers family administers the Ruettgers Family Charitable Foundation, which now supports projects in Rwanda, a country about the size of Massachusetts, with a population of ten million.

Polly Ruettgers, 34, a board member of Orphans of Rwanda, Inc. (www.orphansofrwanda.org), was the first chief of staff of President Clinton’s Initiative on HIV/AIDS and was also associated with Dr. Farmer, whose Partners in Health organization has taken modern health care to parts of the world devastated by poverty and disease. “Rwanda is Paul Farmer’s special case,” her mother says. He has established clinics and hospitals there to provide family health care, health care education and training, and to fight disease, notably the two principal killers: malaria and AIDS.

Maureen Ruettgers herself has been part of former Ambassador to Austria Swannee Hunt’s Women Waging Peace organization. There she met Sister Ann Fox, who became a founder of the Maranyundo Initiative.

The new Maranyundo School for Girls sits on the site used as a killing field in the genocide of 1994. (Courtesy Photo)

 

Rebuilding along new lines

“The genocide meant that this entire country had to start again from nothing,” Ruettgers says. “They’ve written a new constitution, starting from scratch, trying to use the most successful systems from other countries. Their attitude is: ‘We don’t have a choice. We have to move this country forward.’”

Rebuilding affects not only government and education, but also commerce and the environment. Ruettgers notes, “In some ways, that [starting over] means that they can do things we can’t do. For example, the president has decreed that there will be no plastic in the country. That means there is a lot less trash. When I brought a lot of baseball hats there in a big plastic bag, I had to promise to take the bag back out when I left.”

Kagame recognized early on, after he took over the government of Rwanda, that he would have to depend largely on women to rebuild the country, because so many of the men had been killed in the genocide. Embracing this necessity, he appointed women to every department and almost every leadership position in the government. Today, Rwanda boasts, proportionately, more women in its government than any other country in the world.

The new constitution is another example of inventiveness dictated by necessity. Senator Inyumba described the constitutional structure and philosophy in a speech to Women@Google by saying that the division of government is intended to give representation to all the political parties (and therefore ethnic groups) in order to prevent the sort of civil strife that led to the massacre in 1994. “If the president is of one party,” she said, “the prime minister must be a member of the opposition,” and so on down through the cabinet and the legislature. “The way we try to think of it,” she said, “is that the malaria-carrying mosquito bites both the Hutu and the Tutsi (referring to the two main groups engaged in the 1994 genocide). The real problem is to stop malaria.”

About 90% of the population still lives on less than $1.25 per day, but the government is attempting to address the situation at the village level. Ruettgers worked with Senator Inyumba about five years ago on a project that came about because Inyumba was in charge of organizing women’s groups in rural communities to promote health and cottage industry. The women asked for bicycles, because they had no transportation to the market. Ruettgers and her American colleagues gave 200 bicycles to Inyumba’s women’s organization and provided instruction in maintenance and repair, so that the women could go to and from markets with their goods.

Education initiatives

One of the biggest collaborative imports into the country has been in the field of education. Robbed of trained teachers and inundated with undereducated women and children by the genocide, Rwanda again started from scratch, handing educational policy to women like Inyumba and trying to create an entirely new system.

First Lady Jeannette Kagame has made academic and social education, and empowerment for women a headliner project among her many initiatives. She has traveled widely, seeking support from and studying the educational methods of other countries.

The Maranyundo School

Ruettgers’ Rwandan connection strengthened last year when she, Sister Ann Fox and about ten other greater Boston women joined with Mme. Kagame and put together the finances and expertise that became the Maranyundo Initiative and established the Maranyundo School for Girls, siting the building directly on top of land that had been a prison and killing field in 1994. Designed to serve girls in grades seven through nine, the nine-building brick school sits on a hill near Nyamata that looks out on the Maranyundo mountain range. The new school boasts landscaping by one of the American women, a lovely oval entry park and no evidence of the bloodshed that sullied its site, 14 years before.

Students board at the school and live in dormitories. They are provided with linens, meals, uniforms, and medical care and are responsible, in turn, for keeping the school clean. Ruettgers attended the school opening, watching girls take their places in the new classrooms, meeting master teachers from the U.S. and western Europe, and observing the newly outfitted classrooms, dormitories, dining hall and assembly rooms.

To gauge the accomplishment represented by this one school, Ruettgers says, “you have to remember that the genocide stripped the country of its professional and working [personnel] and destroyed buildings, roads, and water and power plants. Survivors were overwhelmingly women and children, with children often forced to become heads of households.” Today, the school serves 180 Rwandan girls in grades seven through nine and there is a plan to expand the school through grade 12.

The students come from a cross-section of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. There is a strict anti-teasing policy like the bullying policies in American schools, and all the girls are treated equally in terms of supplies and opportunities and are encouraged to work together on projects, committees, activities and in athletic and dance and music teams. The school motto is “respect, responsibility, and leadership.”

Students at Maranyundo speak a variety of dialects at home, but all are required to learn English. French, a widely spoken remnant of colonial times in Rwanda, is also taught. However, English-speaking master teachers, funded by the Initiative, mentor and teach with Rwandan teachers to ensure that students have a good grounding in English, considered essential, as the language of commerce. In addition to traditional academic subjects, girls are also instructed in skills for self-sufficiency: gardening, nutrition, sewing, buying and selling, etc. Ruettgers notes that when asked about their aspirations, the girls’ answers vary from “I want to be a wife and mother” to “I want to run the national treasury and handle taxes.”

Supporting students one by one

Ruettgers says that students enter the school at varying levels of academic experience, but the staff approaches each child individually. “It’s very student-centered,” she says. “Teachers interact, team-teach, and have weekly meetings to discuss methods and each student’s progress.” She adds that the shortage of teachers and principals has necessitated the establishment of training programs for both, “and now, especially, for principals, who need to be educated in and kept abreast of new educational practices.”

School governance, both at the school itself and at board level, is done by consensus, an entirely new approach in Rwandan education. “This isn’t always the easiest way,” Ruettgers says, “ but so far it’s working. [At Maranyundo] we’ve been able to establish teacher training and observation, an English [language] learning environment, and to generate reports for the Ministry of Education. Before the Ministry of Education’s program started, it was a struggle to get a system going. But they’ve really tried to assemble best practices from other successful systems and implement them.”

National progress

Inyumba reports that Rwanda now has nine university-level schools, including a journalism school and a medical school. She admits that “Rwanda still has a long way to go with the media,” but explains that the single state-run propaganda communications system has developed into several radio and television stations, and that a college of journalism has been established to train people who have never before had any notion of the nature of the profession or of media law outside of their own country. The three student editors of the Maranyundo Educational Magazine all profess a desire to go to journalism school.

Ruettgers’ enthusiasm for the path on which Rwanda has embarked and for what the Kagame government is trying to achieve is infectious, but it is perhaps best articulated by the student editors of the Maranyundo Educational Magazine in a poem on the last page of their newspaper:

Never lose courage!

Towards a prosperous future,

And despite problems,

Never lose courage!

If you can’t fly, run.

If you can’t run, go quickly.

But, never lose courage!

If you can’t go quickly, go step by step.

If you can’t go step by step, go slowly.

But, never lose courage!

Towards a prosperous future,

And despite problems,

Never lose courage!


© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito