Classroom by classroom, young school children walked single file across the grass-covered playground as they followed their teacher and schoolmaster to the door of a vacant room. Some wore shoes; others were shoeless with dirty bare feet, toughened by the cold wet environment in which they live.
All had shaved heads. The only way to really distinguish who was whom was by the color of the school uniforms — tan for boys, blue for girls.
Approximately two months before this early Thursday morning, I had been on a photo project at the Bisate village school for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. I was covering a piece of their education outreach. The school has 1,700 students, and there is no electricity or no running water — just committed teachers, students and parents.
The village sits on the edge of the national park that is home to the mountain gorillas. This is where I met a young student sitting in a class holding a crumpled up piece of paper in her hand. That piece of paper served as her notebook. This is the way it is in Rwanda where there are no multi-page notebooks or modern school buildings. All families are responsible for providing school materials for their children. This is a hardship since the average income per family in Rwanda is $2.50 a day.
My heart sank.
Once again school has begun here in Fremont. I’ve overheard parents discuss back-to-school expenses, including new clothes, book bags and supplies. The cost can be in the hundreds of dollars. It served as a reminder of the responsibilities we share with parents all over the world.
Determined that poverty should never be an obstacle for young people obtaining an education, I asked for assistance before I left Rwanda to help acquire notebooks and pens for each of the students at the Bisate village school. The Fremont Tribune and local radio station, KHUB, helped take up the cause. Others pitched in with Facebook help and Internet assistance in spreading the word. My goal was to reach $1,500 in a month; instead, we raised approximately $5,000. This provided the opportunity to purchase notebooks and pens for this year and the next. Additionally, nice pens were purchased and presented to each teacher. The generosity and kindness of people’s hearts was overwhelming.
I spent an entire morning handing out the pens and notebooks to each student. Each was received with wide eyes and large smiles. It was one of the highest points of my Rwandan experience.
Afterwards, I went into each classroom to explain the gift. “These are a gift from the Karisoke Research Center (of the Fossey organization) and friends in America,” I explained, “because we know you are smart and want to give you every opportunity to learn and grow.”
I then asked the students a question. “Will you study hard?”
The uniform answer was always, “Yes, Mr. Jacobs.”
This is a thank you to all who supported this project. Will it create world peace? Probably not. But for a day or two, it reduced a little suffering in the lives of people who have already suffered much. And that is a worthwhile goal.
Dean Jacobs is a world traveler and Tribune correspondent. Learn more about his experiences on his Web site, www.travel4life.org.