Five high-school students spent a month in Rwanda, Africa in July, learning about the history of the country and leading community service projects at a number of organizations, including The Rulino School.
Led by Elena Bennett, lower-school music teacher, the team—composed of seniors Donald Hutchinson, Brandon Mysicka, and Brandon Pefferle, junior Patrick Talamantes, and sophomore Micaela Bennett-Smith—joined Chico High School and C. K. McClatchy High School to embark on their 21-hour trip to Kigali, Rwanda, July 7.
The trip was organized by Afripeace, a nonprofit organization which aims to promote peace and conflict resolution between Africa and the U.S. through education and community development.
From going on a safari in Akagera National Park to swimming in Lake Kivu, the group also shopped at traditional markets, attended special lectures at the University of Rwanda and visited museums.
However, a trip to the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre impacted the students in indescribable ways.
The memorial was a school, the exact site where 20,000-40,000 Rwandans were massacred, and their bones preserved.
Bennett-Smith especially remembered seeing the skeleton of a child with chopped-off ankles and of a person with arms frozen in the air as if trying to shield himself from an attack.
“They told us it would be powerful,” Pefferle said, “but looking back, words can’t even describe how I felt. I’ve never seen a dead body before.”
But the somber experience corresponded to the students’ gradual understanding of Rwanda’s recovery from the genocide.
In Kayonza, the Afripeace students met the women from the Association of the Widows of Rwanda (AVEGA), who are genocide survivors.
Bennett-Smith remembered asking them whether they hate the United States, since the country did little to help Rwanda during the genocide.
“They said no because we had helped them afterwards,” she recalled. “Lots of people don’t know about the genocide and think it’s still going on, but Rwanda is so peaceful. The kids are just like us, and it’s important to keep a relationship with them and try to support them. Everyone is trying to move forward.”
And that feeling was only intensified when they arrived at The Rulindo School for their second community service project.
To the students’ surprise, The Rulindo School, a term so commonly used, turned out to be misleading, since there are actually seven schools in the Rulindo “community,” and the group was only visiting the main campus.
Welcomed by Father Onosphere, a line of drummers and the welcoming committee, the Country Day and Chico teams settled in the rooms of the parish in preparation for the work ahead.
The project was to construct floors and install windows in classrooms of the Gasiza Secondary School.
“It was extremely arduous,” said Mysicka. “We had to go all the way down the hill and carry up anywhere from 15-30 pounds of stones.”
But throughout the project, the team wasn’t alone. Although the school was not in session, many Rwandan students came to help, even if they lived far away.
For example, a girl Bennett-Smith met lived 45 minutes away. “It was awful,” Bennett-Smith said. “I thought about how she has to walk that every day.”
And through working and interacting with Rwandan children and adults, the students observed that the people had moved past the genocide.
“Watching Patrick playing with bubbles with three children was one of the cutest things ever,” wrote Mysicka in his blog. “It just goes to show that Rwanda is not just a country scarred with genocide, but a recovered, growing and happy region.”
Although the team was unable to finish the project because it had only five days, to Hutchinson, it was the effort that was important.
“Our ability to work was the highlight of the trip,” he said. “We were actually giving something other than money.”