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"Come to Rwanda. You will see every volunteer is helpful"

Jan Tomas, 60, is an early childhood education adviser volunteer working on VSO’s Enhancing Quality of Early Childhood Education in Rwanda (EQECER) project. It's the biggest professional challenge of a 40-year career in education, and one of the most fulfilling things he’s ever done.

Rwanda introduced early childhood education (ECE) in 2013 in an attempt to reduce high repetition rates. Whilst almost every child is enrolled in primary school, up to 7/10 have to repeat the first year.

“The problem is there is not one ECE teacher now who is qualified. The first qualified teachers will graduate at the end of 2016 and even then the system really needs support,” explains Jan Tomas. He is of the VSO volunteers working to improve the quality of education for the most vulnerable children in the country.

Jan was nearing retirement age after a career in the Netherlands as a teacher and then head teacher, when he decided to act on a long-held ambition and volunteer with VSO. His first education placement in Nepal was a motivating experience that left him hungry for more.

Volunteering in Rwanda

In November 2015 he arrived in Rwanda. Whilst in some ways he felt a little more confident and equipped, nothing could prepare him for what he found:

“Some of my colleagues from Nepal, never mind the Netherlands, would be surprised to walk into some of the classrooms we work in. More than 50 children in some classes, it is not child-centred, no materials for the children. Some children are sleeping in the afternoon because they are hungry”

Volunteer teaching advisor Jan Tomas and colleagues, Rwanda Alice Kiyabanda

Volunteer teaching advisor Jan Tomas with colleagues at Boli Nursery School in Nyamasheke, Rwanda, demonstrating how to use basic and discarded materials to make learning aids for young children in a resource-poor classroom.

A demanding but rewarding role

In Nyamasheke, the second poorest district in Rwanda, Jan is supporting Mwezi teacher training college to turn out the first generation of qualified ECE teachers. He runs workshops and training sessions in learner-centred teaching methodology, and has helped established a learning resource centre, where trainee and in-service teachers can learn to make teaching and learning materials out of the discarded materials they can find around a school, such as rice sacks and bottle tops.

Most international teaching and education volunteers in Rwanda work with a national volunteer. Jan is enjoying being able to collaborate closely with his counterpart, Seraphin Irafasha.

“I am very happy working with Seraphin. He also wants to learn. He joins in delivering training for the student teachers, picks up things from our work and uses them in his work with teachers.

“It’s also good that he speaks Kinyarwanda [the local language]. Having this counterpart also really helps with understanding the local context and how things work”

Jan and Seraphin also work directly with in-service teachers in surrounding schools, who are often making do with the most basic of resources.

“I am really impressed with most of the teachers in Nyamasheke. For those I have worked with, it is the first time working with an NGO, certainly the first time to have the support of a volunteer.

“I learned that the most important thing is to build a relationship with the teacher and see where you can start. Working with them, training and coaching them, has been one of the best things about this experience. When you help the teachers, you help the children”

Volunteer teaching advisor Jan Tomas with colleagues in Rwanda Alice Kiyabanda

Bimenyimana Jeremy (middle), head of the teaching resource centre that Mwezi Teacher Training College has established with the help of Jan Tomas (R), a VSO volunteer from the Netheralnds who pairs with Rwandan volunteer Irafasha Serafin (L)

Signs of progress

“If you get the chance to becoma an education volunteer in Rwanda, it will be worthwhile. There is just so much work to do. When you see the level of education here and the challenges facing some of these very hardworking teachers here, you will see for yourself that every volunteer is helpful.”

Progress takes time and a concerted effort from our volunteers all across Rwanda. Nevertheless, at almost a year in, Jan is seeing some progress:

“Now we see that the teachers of the five schools we are working with get together every Sunday of their own accord to plan their lessons together and prepare for the week. They are organised and supporting each other. That was not happening before. I also feel the increased energy and commitment of the parents.

Advice for future volunteers

Like any volunteer, there have been challenges and struggles along the way, but Jan feels he has emerged from these stronger – both personally and professionally.

“I have gained experience in community outreach work and capacity building that I would not get otherwise. It teaches you to be flexible, accepting and to try to find the positive in every situation. When things don't go the way you expect them to, the secret is acceptance."

“Although compared to back home I am living a very basic life, I am still wealthy compared to many people here. Volunteering teaches you to be happy with what you have, and even feel how privileged you are. I feel richer as a person than before, and I believe that is a life quality.”

“I know I am not yet finished with the volunteering. I would do this again. If you are thinking of volunteering, just do it! If you are thinking of making a change in your life, this will be an experience you will never forget." 

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