“Hey, guys! So next week, we’ll be doing Passport Lunch! Remember to bring $7! The money is going to Rulindo.”
I clap absentmindedly for the speaker, whom I can’t even see. I don’t really know what she’s talking about – something something Rio Linda. People at morning meeting are always talking about Rio Linda. Rio Linda and Dyer Kelly. I think those are both schools. I don’t know why we’re raising money for Rio Linda, but it’s probably a good cause. I might bring $7.
All right, you’re probably snickering because I mixed up Rulindo, the school in Africa, with Rio Linda, the school in the suburbs north of Sacramento. I realized the difference some time last week. How was I to know? Nobody explained our school’s relationship with Rulindo to me when I transferred in during sophomore year. I wouldn’t necessarily expect anybody to, either.
But here’s the thing – I’m not the only one who’s mixed up. When you read “Rulindo, the school in Africa” a few seconds ago, you probably didn’t bat an eye. You hear it all the time, right? “The Rulindo School.”
Well, “Rulindo” isn’t a school. It’s not a city, a town or even a neighborhood. So here’s the breakdown – see how much you already knew:
In central Africa, there’s a very small country called Rwanda. There are 30 districts in Rwanda, which are divided into five provinces of varying size. Rulindo is one of the five districts in the Northern Province.
The district of Rulindo is home to many schools, seven of which are organized under the Rulindo Catholic parish. The seven schools include a general high school, a boarding high school for girls, a lower school, a boarding school for disabled students and several others. These Rulindo parish schools are the ones we’re in partnership with.
So when we say that we’re “raising money for the Rulindo School,” we’re actually raising money for seven schools within the district of Rulindo in the country of Rwanda.
Now that we all know what the name “Rulindo” refers to, let’s talk about the past. There are so many areas of the world that are desperately in need, yet Country Day has chosen to focus its efforts on one particular district.
In 2004, completely by chance, former French teacher Gerlinde Klauser ran into a man named Father Bernardin Banituze who’d been visiting Sacramento at the time. As they made small talk, Klauser learned that Banituze was the head of Rulindo’s church, which oversaw seven schools. Intrigued, Klauser continued to inquire, and Banituze continued to tell her about life in Rulindo. He told her about the hills and the jungles; the schools, the students, the church, and the community…
…and the amputated children, the countless bodies that had once littered the streets, and the broken, broken families.
It had not been long since the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 – which wiped out 20 percent of the country’s population – and the wounds were still fresh.
“What struck Gerlinde so much was this sense among the people of Rwanda that nobody cared they were there,” said lower-school music teacher Elena Bennett.
“Rwanda had a very deep sense of being abandoned by the world. Aside from the trauma that the people went through, they felt very isolated, very alone through all of it.”
Moved by Rulindo’s total abandonment during the genocide, Klauser felt a powerful urge to connect with the people.
“She wanted simply to reach out to the students, whoever they were, and tell them, ‘You know what? We care about you. We just care – we want to say hello, to be your friends,’” Bennett said. “It wasn’t to be some rich benefactor – that’s not how it started. It was meant to be a friendship.”
And a friendship it became. After Banituze returned to Rulindo, Klauser started having her French students write to students in one of Rulindo’s lower schools. As the bond between the Rulindo and Country Day pen pals grew, the lower school became more and more involved – students started participating in small projects to help raise money, such as bake sales, art sales and yard sales.
In 2007, three years after the initiation of the pen-pal program, then-sophomores Analise Rivero and Edek Sher became the first SCDS students to set foot in Rulindo.
In 2008, Banituze returned to Sacramento and spent several weeks with the SCDS community. While he visited, two trees were planted near our middle school to commemorate the bond between Rulindo and SCDS.
A year later, as his senior project, Miles Bennett-Smith, ‘09, organized an all-day musical event called the Playathon that raised money and awareness for the Rulindo schools. After Miles’s graduation, his mother, Elena Bennett, turned the event into an annual tradition.
Unfortunately, Klauser did not live to see the Playathon become a tradition – she died shortly after the first one. Just before her death, she asked Bennett and lower-school principal Christy Vail to keep Country Day’s friendship with Rulindo alive.
In 2012, five SCDS students traveled with Bennett to Rwanda. The trip was organized through Afripeace, a non-profit organization that sponsors Youth Peace Programs and trips to Africa.
The students spent a year preparing for their journey – they learned about Rwanda’s culture, history, language, government, and more. Of the month they spent in Rwanda, one week was dedicated to improving school facilities in Rulindo.
Since 2012, there have been no organized Country Day trips to Rulindo. However, Bennett and her daughter Micaela Bennett-Smith, ‘15, have visited multiple times in more recent years to teach music to the students.
“In 2014, we took 11 ukuleles,” said Bennett. “We started this music program, and it continues now. The students – they teach each other. They really, really like learning ukulele.”
Bennett said that their next big project, spearheaded by Miles, will be to build a basketball court. The money from this year’s Playathon, along with money that Miles is personally raising, will help fund the court. It will also help pay for more critical needs, such as school, lunch, and livestock fees.
“There are several reasons why I continue to go back (to Rulindo),” Bennett said.
“One is to continue teaching music, because that’s something I have to do in person. Another is to see what is changing – what our money is actually accomplishing. I see with my own eyes, and I take many, many pictures.
“The other reason is this: if nobody from here ever went there in the flesh, it would just be this abstraction of our money flowing in. It wouldn’t be that personal connection that Gerlinde was looking for.”
Is everyone familiar with the butterfly effect – the idea that one small occurrence can result in large effects? When it comes to our relationship with Rulindo, that’s the concept we’re dealing with.
Why Rulindo? Was it arbitrary? Yes, in the sense that Klauser’s meeting with Banituze was a chance happening. But from that seemingly meaningless occurrence grew a meaningful friendship between two communities on opposite sides of the world.
(Photos used by permission of Elena Bennett)
—By Marigot Fackenthal