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Back to school as a father of three

It isn’t only children who are going back to school this week. Gratien Nshimiyimana, 29, fought to go back to primary school - the same one his children attend - after his childhood education was cut short by Rwanda's 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis.

Now he is a passionate champion of education involved in a VSO project to establish high quality early childhood education across the country for all children.

Father and children at primary school in Rwanda | VSO ©VSO/Kayibanda Alice

Gratien with his three eldest children: Itabishako Esitera, 9; Tuyishimi  Rambeli, 6; and Irakoze Setiya, 4. All attend Rurama Primary School where Gratien is in Primary 4. The two youngest attend nursery classes supported by VSO's EQUECER project. ©VSO/Kayibanda Alice

VSO’s projects in Rwanda are improving parental engagement in early childhood education in the country. Gratien has very personal reasons for valuing and championing education in his community in Mwezi:

“When I was eight years old my father left the country because of Genocide so I stopped school. I left school to help my mother and support other children in the family. I helped with carrying things like tomatoes from home to the market. We were four. I was the only boy in the family, so I had to be the one to help support the family. I had completed only two years of school.”

The 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis left more than a million people dead and institutions and social order destroyed. Teachers and schoolchildren were among those murdered, and in many cases schools were used by genocidal militias to round up Tutsis for mass executions. A generation of children like Gratien had their education disrupted:

“I never went to school again. I was very, very sad. It did not seem fair that I had to be the one to make the sacrifice for my mother and our family.”

Crunch time

Gratien never became literate. He was employed as a houseboy and got married, all the while harbouring a dream of going back to school. Once he had children of his own and they began going to school, it was crunch time.

“I was sitting one day and asked myself: ‘I don’t know how to read, how to count numbers - maybe now my children are going to school they will bring some notes back and I will not be able to read them. What if I am not able to help them as I should?’

“In 2014 I decided to talk to the headmaster at my children’s school and ask to join the classes. At first I had challenges. Some local government didn’t want me to come, but I talked with and challenged them. I had decided this was what I needed to do. I had to struggle to come back to school.”

Rwanda's literacy vision

Rwanda’s Vision 2020 outlines the Government’s hopes for continued development into a more prosperous, peaceful and fair society. It includes a commitment to supporting every Rwandan to be able to read and write by 2020. This helped Gratien in his cause: two years ago he was successful in enrolling in Rurama Primary School, where he joined a class of primary aged children.

“The first days were very hard. I felt somehow ashamed. Children were laughing at me. The teachers just explained to the other students that I would be their colleague and we would learn together.

Adult man in primary school class with children in Rwanda | VSO ©VSO/Kayibanda Alice

Gratien Nshimiyimana with his Primary 4 classmates at Rurama Primary School ©VSO/Kayibanda Alice

'Sometimes I feel ashamed'

Gratien had discussed his ambition of finishing his schooling with his wife, who is also illiterate. She is now the sole breadwinner, working as a wage labourer for little pay to support her husband and their four children, who are aged from one month to nine years old.

“My children were always happy I would be at school with them. But other people in the community do not approve. I know they talk about me and see me somehow less of a man because of this.

“It is hard for us to find food. Sometimes I feel ashamed. But I am passionate about my education. I most enjoy learning to read and write. I could never do that. Now I am in the top three students in the class.”

Parents working to improve early childhood education

Gratien’s two middle children Rambeli, 6, and Setiya, 4, go to the nursery at Rurama that is supported by VSO’s EQUECER project to improve Rwanda’s fledgling early childhood education (ECE) system. ECE is reducing rates of repetition at primary at Rurama and hundreds of other schools, but many parents still lack awareness of its availability and importance. Gratien is among parents VSO is supporting to raise awareness in the community through parent teacher meetings and other community work.

“Since I am in Primary 4 I also have the opportunity to teach and support my children who attend nursery. The education they receive is good.

“In the evenings I and the children sit together at home and we repeat what we have learned. That makes me feel proud. We also try to share what we have learned with my wife. I also try to speak to other parents in the community about education.”

Find out more about VSO's education work in Rwanda

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