Gasiza Secondary (one of seven Rulindo schools SCDS supports and partners with), is in another country (Rwanda) on another continent (Africa), thousands of miles away.

9,331 miles to be exact. That’s almost 24 hours away in flight time.

Summer temperatures don’t reach triple digits. Darkness sets in at 6:30 p.m.

Save for a volleyball, a basketball and a soccer ball, there is no sports equipment.

There are few musical instruments, except for three guitars.

And 11 ukuleles.

Music teacher Elena Bennett recently returned from Rwanda, where she taught ukulele to 40 “intelligent, musical, respectful and friendly” students every day from June 15 to July 15.

“People of all ages love (the ukuleles), pick everything up quickly, sing beautifully, and spontaneously harmonize,” she said.

The ukuleles were a donation from SCDS (10 given in 2014 and one this year). Country Day’s strong presence at Gasiza Secondary (a combination middle and high school) is felt by the 650 students and 18 teachers “partly because of the money we send, but more importantly because live Country Day people now come here regularly,” Bennett said.

Although returning to Rulindo takes a “quick and dramatic adjustment,” Bennett said she started to fit in on her third trip to Rwanda because she stayed longer and got to know more people. (She also visited in 2012 with Country Day and the Afripeace team, a group of SCDS students who fundraised and studied in preparation for a month of cultural education and community service in Rwanda, and in 2014 with her daughter Micaela, ‘15).

Bennett stayed primarily at Gasiza Secondary, where she lived in the parish visitors’ quarters. 

“I love living near the church, because you hear singing so much during the day, echoing out of the huge old brick church built by Belgians,” she said.

Bennett ate breakfast (tea and bananas and sometimes eggs) in the refectoire, a small brick house near her room, with Fathers Onesphore and Mukasa, the two priests who run the Rulindo parish.

“The priests are the kindest people on earth, perpetually cheerful and laughing, even though they work very hard,” she said.

During the day, Bennett sat in on junior and senior literature classes, taking notes on the curriculum so she could help teach those classes in the future and occasionally discussing various topics in front of the class.

“The Nigerian authors they’re reading are really provocative,” she said.

“The juniors are reading a fascinating 150-page poem about the clash of traditional African culture with Western culture. The whole thing is the author’s commentary on East Africa’s loss of traditional culture in its rush to embrace technology and Westernization.”

Bennett said it’s hard for the students to read and discuss the poem in English but that the teacher works really hard to convey the ideas.

Bennett emphasized that she wasn’t teaching these classes. (She compared that idea to an African teacher with an unintelligible accent and unfamiliar with the curriculum taking over a Country Day English class three weeks before the final exam.)

But on her first day at the school, Bennett said she did step in and taught two 100-minute sessions for the English teacher, who was occupied with “football training.”

“I fumbled through, and they were very respectful, which was humbling,” she said. “Only one girl dozed off.”

Aside from her work in the classroom, Bennett attended social events with one of the fathers, traveling to “impossibly remote and interesting places.”

Elena Bennett helped deliver rabbits to the school at Gitabage on July 9. "The rabbits survived many hours of outrageous jolting in the back of our truck, and a throng of people was waiting for them," she said.

(Photo by Elena Bennett)
Elena Bennett helped deliver rabbits to the school at Gitabage on July 9. “The rabbits survived many hours of outrageous jolting in the back of our truck, and a throng of people was waiting for them,” she said.

In addition, she assisted in delivering SCDS-donated animals: 500 chicks to Gasiza Secondary and 80 rabbits and 30 goats to the school at Gitabage. Recently, 80 rabbits were given out at Rulindo Primary School.

Lunch consisted of green beans or peas with carrots and soup, and perhaps a tortilla, she said. Dinner was similar, accompanied by red beans or squash. Potatoes and rice or cassava were also staples at every meal.

After ukulele lessons, the students would hang around to talk to Bennett, she said, even though they had a walk home of more than an hour.

Bennett passed around the most recent Medallion during a junior literature class.

“I knew they’d be so excited to see the yearbook!” she said.

“(Daughter Micaela’s) senior page caused a sensation since they all remember her.”  (In fact, some kids referred to Bennett simply as “Micaela’s mother.”)

Each Rulindo class member chose a Country Day junior and wrote the student a letter.

“I also took a picture of each letter writer, so it’s more personal,” she said.

Bennett’s camera was a source of fascination for the students.

“They love my camera,” she said.

“They knew I was going to take pictures, so a few wore their ‘coolest’ clothes.”

The school had only a tiny camera, Bennett said, so she donated her “beloved Canon.”

“The teachers and students were thrilled,” she said.

At around 5 p.m., the sun would start to set. Because Bennett was in the mountains, there was usually a pleasant breeze, she said.

She would fall asleep to the sound of critters (probably rats) thrashing and pigeons cooing in the rafters of the high ceilings of her guest quarters. High and cool, Rulindo doesn’t have many of mosquitoes, Bennett said, but she slept under a mosquito net as a precautionary measure against the malaria-carrying insects.

She said the students at Gasiza are “keenly aware” of the relationship between Country Day and the Rulindo School.

There’s a mossy stone plaque in the grass by the chicken yard that has “Gift of Sacramento Country Day School” carved into it. In an office on the wall, there is a banner with a peace dove on it, which she brought in 2012.

Before she left, she gave the school a poster of SCDS kindergarteners’ hands forming a heart.

“I talked to people, poked my nose into every corner, and took endless pictures,” she said.

Bennett said she hopes to return to Rulindo most summers.

“I love going back,” she said.

“I love the rhythm of life in Rulindo: the routines of the day, the slower pace, the material simplicity, the weather, the early sunset, the very very simple food, the mountaintop we live on (and) the fact that there’s no business or tourist shops anywhere near.”

—By Zoë Bowlus

Despite having a walk home of more than an hour, students would stay after Bennett's ukelele classes to talk with her.

(Photo courtesy of Elena Bennett)
Despite having a walk home of more than an hour, students would stay after Bennett’s ukelele classes to talk with her.

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