After Genocide

Gabrielle Bougher ’03 finds optimism in Rwanda. By Liz Getman ’09

Last year, in their World Cultures and Geography class at John Stark Regional High School in Weare, New Hampshire, Gabrielle Bougher and her freshmen analyzed the 1994 Rwandan genocide. During discussions of the country’s reconciliation process — a government effort to unite citizens, heal survivors, and maintain peace — students asked Gabrielle some challenging questions: “What’s life like there today?” “How are people rebuilding their lives?”

Textbook and Internet searches for information left the class unfulfilled. Gabrielle was frustrated. The only way to satisfy her students’ curiosity, she figured, was to travel to Rwanda and find out firsthand.

She applied for a grant through Fund for Teachers, a nonprofit that provides grants for summer sabbaticals that foster professional growth. Gabrielle received $5,000 from the fund to travel to the capital city of Kigali last summer.

Gabrielle wanted to observe daily life in Rwanda and also to participate in a service project related to education. In 2008, the Rwandan government had changed the language of its education system from French to English to increase access to the global economy and connect with neighboring English-speaking countries. Rwandan teachers are taught basic English through government programs, but volunteers are the primary instructors. Gabrielle decided that teaching English to educators and students would be the best way to make an impact.

Most of her pupils at Remera Catholic Primary School — which has about 25 teachers and more than 900 students—knew no English, so Gabrielle learned simple Kinyarwanda. “Between my high school French, my Kinyarwanda, and English,” she says, “I communicated very well.”

Without textbooks or materials, she used some creative teaching methods. “Songs, rhyming, and dancing were the best,” she says. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the game Simon Says became class favorites.

Gabrielle hopes to put books in the hands of each student by next July, when she’ll return to Kigali with a small group of teachers to create Remera Catholic’s first library. She’s procuring books through colleagues, friends, family members, and local efforts.  

Until then, Gabrielle is recounting her experiences to stu­dents at John Stark. Now, when they inquire about Rwanda, she says, “I definitely feel I can answer [their] questions. [Rwandans] are committed to remembrance through college rallies, new court systems, public forums, and memorials. They’re trying to remember and move on and elevate relationships with each other. There’s hope there.”