By, Amanda Neves

This summer I had the opportunity to spend 4 weeks in Rwanda, a country in East Africa. Most people hear Rwanda and think about the movie Hotel Rwanda, automatically assuming Rwanda is a war zone. When I started telling people where I was spending half of my summer, they thought I was crazy. So many people tried to convince me to not go and spend my summer somewhere else, anywhere else but Rwanda. However, when people question or doubt my decision, it gives me the affirmation I need to know that I need to go on this trip to prove everyone’s stereotypes and doubts wrong.

The program I was going through is called Books and Beyond. Books and Beyond is a program that connects elementary school kids in Bloomington, Indiana with elementary students in Rwanda. The students in both places create, write, and illustrate stories that get published into a book. Every year a team of students from Indiana University travel to Rwanda for four weeks to lead an English literacy camp that helps the students in Rwanda write their stories. So, when I learned I was going to be able to give back AND get out of Indiana for four weeks, I was locked in.

The journey to get to Rwanda was a very long one, a 40-hour journey to be exact. The first week there was spent doing tourist things such as a safari, visiting museums, eating at different restaurants, and just touring the city. The second week, we moved into our house that we were going to be staying at and started training to teach the next week. We were all paired with a Rwandan teacher and given a subject to teach. I was paired with Julienne, who was absolutely amazing, and I was teaching Kinesthetic. Basically, I was using games, songs, and hands on activities to teach common English. I was so ready to begin teaching but my spirits started to become low. I was really missing home and felt like I was missing out on all the fun everyone else was having during their summer, and it did not help that I was coming down with a cold.

So, the day came for us to go to the school, every possible feeling that you could imagine, I was going through. We had to walk up this hill to get there; mind you we’re in the mountains, so everyone is having a hard time breathing—and we’re all already tired climbing up this hill. Then we hear it. Hundreds of kids screaming and yelling while running down to come meet us. I have never in my life felt that my presence was as important as it was that day for those kids. We handed out the book they wrote the year before to every student and then we were introduced to our classes. The next two weeks, we were teaching in the morning and helped to build a playground in the afternoon. (Fun fact, the playground we helped build was the first one to ever be built in that city.) Our last day at the school, the students put on a performance where they sang the song I taught them, performed a play, and read the stories they wrote, for everyone in the town. Saying goodbye was the hardest thing to do. Some of my students cried, which made me cry, and honestly I never thought I could impact anybody the way they allowed me to impact them.

I left that school that day with my student’s confidence at an all-time high. At the beginning of the literacy camp, no one ever wanted to volunteer or raise the hand but by the end, everyone was willing to answer questions. Not only did my student’s confidence grow, but mine did as well. Coming back to school this year, I’ve been more open to trying new things and just being a more well-rounded and outgoing person overall. If I could go back and relive my experience, I would in a heartbeat. I miss my students, my friends, and everything else about Rwanda.