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By Mark Pavilons
“If you're going to do something, do it with purpose.”
That's the advice a 21-year-old Bolton woman has for anyone who wishes to travel, volunteer and experience other cultures.
Alexandria (Lexie) Hesketh-Pavilons recently returned from a five-week volunteer experience in Rwanda, something that has given her a great sense of “community.”
A dozen Western University students embarked on the experiential learning program, volunteering at several facilities outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali. They ranged from schools to centres that assisted homeless youth. A veteran of humanitarian missions, Hesketh-Pavilons said this was more of a co-operative approach, filling a grass-roots need and giving back to the community. It was more immersive than previous trips she's been on and all were able to gather a deeper understanding of the people, culture and humanity that brings us all together.
Hesketh-Pavilons said she became keenly aware of the concept of “ubuntu” – a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity.” It translates as “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others.”
“We were constantly learning about ourselves through others … we were a community learning from each other,” she remarked.
Lexie spent her time working at Aspire, a facility that offers a variety of programs to empower women and youth: vocational skills training, business skills training, micro-credit loans, agricultural support (for participants living in rural areas) and a robust social empowerment and health education programs. It offers vocational training, skills and education to vulnerable women living in poverty in Rwanda. Opened in 2009 by CEO and founder Peace Ruzage, Aspire chooses hard-working, resilient women to enroll in a 12-month training program at its urban or rural center.
Each centre provides complimentary childcare for preschool-aged children. For many Rwandan women who are attempting to raise children and earn money, they have few options for childcare other than leaving young children home alone or withdrawing an older sibling from school to care for them. The Aspire childcare center offers a safe and educational environment for the mothers to leave their children that allows them to concentrate on the program. Children are provided with two nutritional meals a day and follow a preschool curriculum.
Lexie spent the bulk of her time teaching English to pre-schoolers, as well as the adult teachers and Aspire staff, who are always interested in improving their English skills. She not only helped everyone with English, but assisted in art and music programs at the school.
The adult women were extremely receptive to the Canadian students' genuine interest and openness. Lexie said it was a very positive exchange and the dynamic went beyond just instruction. They had many casual conversations that involved sharing cultural differences and attitudes. The Rwandans showed a genuine curiosity about Canadian customs.
Rwanda is progressive and their public school is free, through the high school level. Many, however, chose to attend private school, which tends to bring greater opportunities but bears a cost.
The majority of the country's economy is geared toward agriculture, and a lack of old age security measures means many seniors are still out working the fields. Hesketh-Pavilons said they were made aware of current social issues in Rwanda, that include a high level of teen pregnancies, single mothers and youth homelessness.
Groups like Aspire are helping, but their resources are limited. They rely on grants and even help from outsiders like the UWO students, whose visit marked a first for the two groups. Aspire had never enjoyed a group this committed, who stayed this long and the partnership really paid off.
Not only were bonds created, but Aspire staff wanted feedback from the students, who were more than willing to help make things more efficient. Some changes were implemented and one student assisted Aspire with some stronger fundraising measures.
Hesketh-Pavilons observed Aspire staff valued their feedback and that doesn't come without a certain level of trust and respect.
The impact the students had was quite evident. Hesketh-Pavilons observed that all of the adults, even the kitchen staff, improved their English and became much more self-confident because of the interaction.
It was a “true exchange” she said, noting the experience was “incredible.”
The length of stay was key in this case, she noted. Lexie's longest previous volunteer adventure was a three-week trip to Kenya in 2016 through Me to We. She's engaged in many week-long programs, but admitted the greater the commitment, the greater the rewards for everyone involved.
All of the students left Rwanda feeling fully accomplished.
“I got enough and left enough of me behind,” she said. “It's so cool if you can have an experience like this, returning home feeling truly educated.”
Even weeks later, Hesketh-Pavilons is still connected to her Rwandan sisters. She contacts them regularly through Facetime.
Helping the adult women and sharing their life stories were among the highlights of the experience.
Lexie wells up with tears as she relates details of her encounters.
There were some harsh realities, too. There's no escaping the lasting effects of the Rwandan genocide, which marked its 25th anniversary this year. The conflict, during the Rwandan Civil War in 1994, left almost one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu dead. The students visited some memorials from that awful time and buildings still bear the scars from the fighting.
Lexie and her fellow students enjoyed the services of a 34-year-old male cabbie who lost his entire family in the genocide. He's doing fairly well these days, plus he owns his own cow! Despite his loss, he was upbeat, happy and helpful, forming a bond with the students. Lexie said you could feel his strength and resilience and it was “inspiring to see.”
One of the most interesting public events in Rwanda is the monthly “umuganda,” meaning a “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome.” On the last Saturday of every month, from 8 to 11 a.m., businesses close and traffic stops as citizens across the country take to their neighborhoods with tools in hand, making them a little bit better. It's a mandatory community day that residents enthusiastically enjoy. All able-bodied citizens between the ages of 18 and 65 are expected to participate, and missing this civic duty can result in penalties.
According to the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB), “people participate in cleaning streets, cutting grass, trimming bushes alongside the roads, planting trees, and repairing public buildings.”
It's rare to see much litter in Rwanda, even in capital city Kigali, which is frequently called the cleanest city in Africa.
The sense of “humanity” from what's perceived as a developing nation here in the west, definitely taught these leaders of tomorrow some valuable lessons.
Excerpt: “If you’re going to do something, do it with purpose.” That’s the advice a 21-year-old Bolton woman has for anyone who wishes to travel, volunteer and experience other cultures. Alexandria (Lexie) Hesketh-Pavilons recently returned from a five-week volunteer experience in Rwanda, something that has given her a great sense of “community.”
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