Rwanda Revisited

Rwanda is an optimist’s paradise.  Naysayers and cynics move along.  This post is rife with inspiration, innovation and resilience in a country that 19 years ago was in unimaginable turmoil.

Continual controlled panic was the way I described my visit to Rwanda in October 1994, just months after a brutal genocide saw the massacre of a million people in 100 days.  On that visit I slept on the floor of the destroyed Ministry of Health office in Kibungo, eerily listening to dogs howl as they raided shallow graves for sustenance.  Tufts of hair and pools of blood still stained the floors of the new office space under consideration, and we’d speed up as we passed churches still full of the remains of those who’d fatally reasoned that the church would be a refuge rather than a mass grave during the worst of it.  I never saw a dead body that trip, but empty villages and the smell were enough to connect the dots in my imagination.  I never thought I would return.  Ever.

Yet last week that’s precisely what I did.  Invited as a strategic advisor to Vision for a Nation, a registered UK charity with a mission to make vision assessments and affordable eyeglasses available to all, I traveled to Rwanda and spent three remarkable days consistently impressed and inspired by what I saw and experienced.


With 11 million people in Rwanda, Vision for a Nation’s goal to give every person (over 8) in the country an eye exam and provide relief for correctable refractive error is ambitious, but now that I have been there and seen their approach, I believe it is possible. VFAN was born from a simple adjustable lens technology and ‘train the trainer’ model that enables nurses to diagnose and correct refractive error in the 45 health centers throughout the country.  The adjustable glasses have dials on the sides which, when rotated, slide one lens in front of the other until the unique prescription is achieved.  Those with refractive error walk into a health center and walk out with glasses completely eliminating the need to return to the center to pick up custom glasses or the inefficiencies of pairing donated glasses from the developed world with end recipients.  It’s inexpensive, efficient and instant gratification.  Other benefits include diagnosis and treatment of cataracts, conjunctivitis and other easily treatable eye ailments.  Working in partnership with the Ministry of Health, VFAN will soon launch a public awareness campaign through a highly organized communication system in the country to educate and inform the public about vision care.  Eye care is generally not a life saving intervention, but it certainly improves quality of life.  This is one of many public health initiatives the MOH has embraced to improve the lives of those in Rwanda.

Speaking of the Ministry of Health, we were fortunate to have a private dinner with the remarkable Minister of Health, Agnes Binagwaho one night in Kigali.  The list of health initiatives she has implemented to improve the lives of Rwandans is impressive.  She is entrepreneurial, philosophical and pragmatic with a “can do” attitude I’ve never seen before in Africa.  She’s a total pro.  Dinner conversation included great one-liners like, “The best idea on the table is the one I take.”  “Money will come.  Good strategy is the important thing.”  “I want to die happy of what I have achieved.  I don’t want to be the richest in the cemetery.”   Her initiatives include the 80/40/20 plan to reduce non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 80% for those under 40 by 2020.  To do this she began by implementing very concrete public health changes including mandating helmets for motorbikes, seatbelts, banning smoking in public places, cooking stove improvements and other initiatives that didn’t cost much, but had a huge impact.  She was the first to offer the HPV vaccine, countrywide, to schoolgirls of a certain age.  Her work in reducing HIV AIDS in the country is legendary.  Her entire staff has all gone to graduate school at the expense of the ministry and many are beginning PhDs now.  Government workers are mandated to do an exercise of their choice on Fridays during the workday and pay a fine if they do not.   She regularly tweets (as does the President) and responds to every tweet she receives.  She has 10,000 followers and has a regular Monday with the Minister show two times a month to address public health issues.  The Honorable Minister is a global health leader, not only for Rwanda.  I was honored to share a meal with her. 

Rwanda has two unique programs that contribute to its continued growth and improvement.  If I understand correctly, the Muganda is a compulsory gathering the last Saturday of every month at which time the entire country, divided into local communities, comes together to work from 7-10 on an improvement project and then from 10-12 to meet and share information.  They will paint a house that has fallen into disrepair, collect trash, build a road, or anything that the community deems as an improvement.  As a result, the country is tidy, fresh and continually improving.  Similarly, the Urunana radio programs reach an unprecedented percentage of the country with a soap opera-like ongoing storyline.  Intertwined in the programs are community health and agricultural messages.  This is one of the primary vehicles for spreading information throughout the country.  So radio that was once used for inciting violence is now used in a similar way for improving lives.


Beyond health initiatives, last spring, in preparation for the TEDxHappyValley “Radical Resilience” event in Hong Kong, I was teamed up as a speech coach for a remarkable 27-year-old entrepreneur Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, founder of the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali.  Elizabeth taught me more than I her during the process.  When I agreed to go to Kigali, I knew that a visit to see Akilah would be important.   Akilah Institute for Women is a three-year training program for women.  Women apply, take an entrance exam, provide references and interview for spaces at Akilah.  Those selected do a foundational year of math and English language as well as leadership training and then embark on a two-year program in one of three disciplines, entrepreneurship, information management or tourism.  Women receive career counseling, do internships, and continue with leadership training and practical skills development throughout their studies.  The first graduating class in 2012 had 100% job placement.    I had the honor of having lunch with four of their current students.  I was completely inspired and humbled by their poise, intelligence, determination and vision for their futures.  I can’t say enough good things about Akilah!  If you’re looking for a good place to invest in women’s education, this would be my top recommendation.

Above and beyond these formal gatherings, I was inspired to meet others who are consciously building businesses in Rwanda.  A friend of a friend has launched an organic coffee farm on his family’s heritage land after having fled Rwanda in 1959.  Upon returning, he was given back his family land and is now gently learning the coffee business, producing some of the world’s finest artisenal products.  I can’t wait to try some.

A dear friend of mine, Rachel Radcliffe, made the effort to fly all the way from Nairobi to visit me during my short stay in Rwanda.  I was so touched and happy to see her!  We worked together 20 years before at OFDA and have both led circuitous international lives since then.  Reconnecting with an old friend from those formative years was grounding and inspiring.  I feel so blessed.

Returning to Rwanda under much better circumstances was cathartic.  I know it isn’t perfect.  I’ve read the articles and heard the naysayers about Rwanda, but in this post I choose to see the country as it should be, celebrating those things that are working and truly inspired by earnest, innovative efforts on the parts of so many people to make things good in a place that hasn’t always been so.

Reggio Emilia Revisited

More than a decade ago I was invited by the director of my son’s awesome preschool in Santa Monica, Evergreen Community School, to join her on a trip to Reggio Emilia in Italy.  Years later I am thrilled to hear a buzz about Reggio Emilia half way around the world in our school in Hong Kong.  Recently I found a copy of the speech I gave at a parent night after our trip to Italy that describes some key elements of the philosophy and approach to learning.  In case you’re curious what it’s all about, here’s an excerpt from that speech. If your kids are older than 6, this probably won’t be directly relevant, as this is designed specifically for the early years.      


I have a quick list of five jewels I picked up in Italy that have changed my perspective in some way that I want to share with you.  Before I get into the list, let me set the scene and tell you a little about Reggio and what’s going on there.

Reggio Emilia is a town in northern Italy famous for Parmesan cheese, proscuto, balsamic vinegar, Ferraris and Pavarotti (did I mention we saw Pavarotti in concert?…).  The town of Reggio has about 140,000 people.  Within the town there are 21 preschools and 13 infant/toddler centers supported and run by the Municipality of the town.  These specialized “Reggio Schools” grew from the period of liberation after the Second World War.  As a reaction to fascism and in a push to develop a growing women’s movement in the region, community members, spearheaded by women and an enlightened leader, Loris Malaguzzi, began to fight for the rights of children, the most fundamental of which, they believed, is the universal right to quality education, without exception.  What has grown out of that struggle is a community with a deeply rooted commitment to children, education, research and experimentation that takes early childhood education more seriously that I could ever have imagined possible. 

Here are five key aspects of Reggio Emilia:

  1. Rights of the Child – The first thing that struck me as being highly-developed in the Reggio formula for education is the ultimate belief in the fundamental rights of children and the way that this is demonstrated in the classroom on a daily basis.  A commitment to the rights of children does not mean that children have the right to do whatever they want at any time, to run amok around the schoolyard without purpose, or treat others in a disrespectful manner.  Rather, it’s a more subtle understanding and commitment to the idea that every child has something of value to share and should have the opportunity to develop his or her own potential, whatever that might be.  Teachers in Reggio Emilia believe that when children are respected and made to understand that differences are ad judicable and can be negotiated in a way that recognizes and respects the independence of other children, they are more likely to develop their own understanding of compassion and empathy.   But the most important point is that the process of this justice is the key, not the outcome.  Process is where teachers choose to focus their attention.  Not on which child is “right” or which child had the toy first, but on how the children can work together to come up with a solution.  Ultimately, this emphasis on process and respect for children as people with independent beliefs and ideals best cultivates human intelligence and compassion, those things that are most essential in a successful community.  
  1. Pedagogy of Listening – The second concept that is a core of the Reggio philosophy is what they call the “pedagogy of listening”.  This was not an easy concept for me to grasp as, even the word “pedagogy” doesn’t translate well from Italian.  After two days of trying to figure out, intellectually, what they were talking about, I had to ultimately give in to a more intuitive sense of the word.  A wonderful speaker, Carla Rinaldi, helped to express this idea in a more philosophical way.  She said, “To understand is to be able to develop an interpretive theory that gives meaning to the events and phenomenon of the world.  We’re all builders of theories, including our 3 year olds.  We’re born with a “why” in our mind.  In fact, she points out, even “Our first cry is a why”.  She says you can’t live without theory because you can’t live without meaning.    As we observe with our own kids, Children constantly ask “why” as they continuously construct and reinvent their ideas and understanding of the world.  Rather than a burden, this curiousness should be nurtured and celebrated.  Our role as educators and parents is to continually ask ourselves, “What kind of human beings are we trying to help create?”    Listening is the key to this, and I think as you look around the classroom you will see that teachers focus their attention on listening to what kids say.  They transcribe conversations, repeat statements to other kids to bring them into the discussion, they take video so they can review the conversations again and again and, most importantly, they make eye contact, interact and engage the kids.  Listening, when done right is an active, reciprocal act.  This is a lesson we could all probably use a little refresher course in.  It’s a real skill to listen to people, but you know how good it feels when you know you’ve actually been heard.  Think of the confidence boost this gives to the children.   
  1. Role of the teachers – This leads directly to the third idea, and that is the role of the teachers in the classroom.  Unlike traditional educators, teachers in RE see themselves as equal partners with the children in their discovery of the world rather than as their leaders.  Teachers are not there to impart information to the children, rather, their role is to help the children develop their own theories of the world.  This is not lip service.  The teachers really do believe that children have as much to teach as they do provided they really take the time to listen and understand what the kids are saying.  Their goal is to respect the child’s ideas and to help him develop it, not to give answers. This can be a difficult concept in practice.  It’s much easier to just give an answer to a question than to spend time helping kids find their own solution.   But by stepping back and letting them discover things for themselves, they gain a greater sense of accomplishment and an approach to learning that will serve them the rest of their lives.  The Reggio Emilia philosophy does not take problems away from the children but instead attempts to help children deal with them imaginatively and directly.  By creating an environment of support and encouragement, the teachers give the kids a comfort zone to try out ideals without negative consequences like bad test scores or shame.  Consider this.  The more consequential a situation is, the narrower learning will be.  As one expands and makes learning less consequential, broader learning can happen.   If a child does not feel threatened or as though so much is at stake, they will be more willing to take a chance and maybe be wrong.  Teachers help facilitate the formation of groups and to make connections between the children. 
  1. Role of documentation – The fourth thing that was made clearer for me was the role of documentation in the classroom.  I had seen all the storyboards and books of information related to children’s activities around the school, but I never really fully grasped the significance of those, beyond decoration of the classroom and reassurance for the parents.  What I learned in Reggio is that documentation is a tool used to really listen to children.  By documenting what the kids are doing the teachers are making the children’s work visible and also giving it value.  But documentation alone is not enough.  Our teachers don’t just record what they see, they review it several times, argue about it, work hard to understand the underlying principals and theories our kids are developing and then put together the story boards that succinctly tell the story for our benefit and, more importantly, for the benefit of our kids.  Through observation and interpretation, the documentation process enables the teacher an opportunity to re-listen, re-visit, re-see, (alone or with others) events and processes in which she was protagonist either directly or indirectly.  For children, documentation offers the opportunity for reflection, self-assessment, social assessment and remembering in the learning process.  And, it gives parents the opportunity to better understand not only what their child is doing in school, but also what underlying concepts their child is exploring.   
  1. Role of Parents –  The final point into which I can shed a little insight is the role of parents in this process.  I have to say that our kids are in such good hands it seems there’s not much left that we have to do.  In fact, parents play a significant role in continuing at home the community building efforts ongoing through the work the teachers start in the classroom.  I’d send you with these brief ideas to try to implement in your own home:
    1. Don’t give your kids the answers.  Let them draw their own conclusions.
    2. Be an equal partner with your kid on the learning path.  Recognize that your kids have their own theories about the world and see what you can learn from them.
    3. Instead of asking your kids what they did at school that day, try asking what other kids in their class did.
    4. Get involved with the school, even if it just means being aware of your child’s surroundings.  Find out why the dress-up corner is located right next to the kitchen.  Ask questions, read the documentation and participate to the extent your schedule allows.