Educating the Rich and Poor Together: The Story of the Maranyundo Girls School

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As we struggle in our schools with issues of racism, economic disparity, and achievement gaps, we would not think that African schools would have much to offer us. We often dismiss them as places where students simply learn facts and then “regurgitate” them for tests.

However, if we look deeper into some of the characteristics of African schools we might find some practices that could positively challenge our educational methods.

The following description from Rwanda is an excellent starting point. I am grateful to our friend, Sr. Juvenal , for allowing me to reconstruct her extemporaneous speech here. Sister, a member of the Benebikira Congregation, is known to many in South Boston as she  stayed with us at the Paraclete while doing graduate studies.

For those of you fortunate to hear her at the Segal Foundation Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, you will note there are additional points left out of her original speech because of time constraints.

Based on a speech given at the Segal Foundation Conference, April 6, 2015 in Nairobi, Kenya by Sr. Marie. Juvenal Mukanurama, Head of the Maranyundo Girls School in Nyamata, Rwanda.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to all of you. Today, I would like to share with you the story of how we educate the poor and the rich students together at the Maranyundo Girls School in Rwanda.

The very first thing we must do is to show the poor girls from the rural areas that we know they can do as well as the girls from the city. We show them that they will not be treated any different from others and that we expect the same from all girls, no matter what their background.

There are many customs or practices in schools administered by the Benebikira sisters that we have found to be effective in helping to create a school community where there are no divisions due to background.

For Instance, when the girls first arrive we inspect each piece of luggage. For some girls we add what is missing, such as soap or toothpaste; for other girls we give back to their families items that are not needed, such as jewelry. We believe uniforms are important because no one will be able to tell from their appearance who comes from a family of wealth or from poverty. Each girl receives her set of clothes, puts on her uniform and enters the school campus where she is greeted by her “mother.” Let me explain.

The night before the arrival of new students, we have a bowl with slips of paper with each of the new student’s names. Girls from the class above pick a name from the bowl and that student becomes her daughter.   As mother she takes responsibility for orientation of her daughter on every aspect of school life. A girl from the rural area may need to be shown how to use a shower; a girl from the city might have to learn how to wash her clothes in a bucket. They are assigned to the same bunk bed and of course there is a grandmother who also has a bed near them. They become family.

Another thing we do is keep information on who receives financial help private. Only the head of school and the buser know this information.

In our culture, meal time is when we socialize and share.   We assign students to tables of ten and change the assignments at least once during the year so that the girls have an opportunity to get to know their classmates. For us, an important characteristic of an educated person is the ability to make friends and socialize with people from all types of background. Our meal time provides this opportunity.

On our monthly visiting day, some families come by car, some by foot. We do not allow them to bring special treats for their daughters.  They share snacks and tonics provided by the school. For those who have the means and want to contribute, they may leave money in a special basket. At the end of the visiting day, the girls count what is there and decide what kind of treat they will buy for all the students.

I would like to close my remarks by telling you that although when our poor girls from rural schools first come they do have a difficult time with school work, but by the end of the first year they are competent, and by the time of graduation they are among our very best performing students.

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