Skip to main content

Five minutes with...Rhea Villarico VSO Volunteer

Throughout her career as a physiotherapist, Filipino volunteer Rhea Villarico, 37, always harboured a dream of becoming a teacher. So she re-trained, and realised her ambition of working with children.

Driven by a need to work in a meaningful environment, Rhea wanted her training to be useful in some of the world’s poorest countries.

She jumped at the chance at a posting to Rwamagana in Rwanda with VSO, where she is working as an in-service methodology advisor helping to support teachers with limited knowledge of modern educational techniques.

©VSO, Tim Maynard

Right to left: Theoneste Habiyaremye, local nursery teacher in Murama district, eastern Rwanda, Rhea Villarico, VSO volunteer from the Phillippines, and Agnes Mbvoyire, Rwandan volunteer for VSO

Tell us about your role here?

I am part of the EQUECER programme - Enhancing the Quality of Early Childhood Education in Rwanda.The idea of early education is very new here; in fact until recently there was no pre-primary education at all.

It means that teachers have limited knowledge. Many might not have graduated from the teacher training colleges. In essence anyone could be a pre-school teacher.

There is no understanding of the value of learning and discovering through play. School is just ‘chalk and talk’. Playing is seen as ‘lazy’.

Parents also need to know the value of learning at home. Many don’t have money to spend on early education when they can just send their children to primary school later.

My role is to essentially mentor teachers, so I visit the local schools to observe classes and feedback on whether they are using my advice. I invite teachers, members of the PTA and the sector education officers to training sessions.

The subject can be on anything, classroom management, behaviour management or early education. I am also supporting assessments of children to identify special needs.

What inspired you to volunteer?

I felt like I had achieved so many things in my life but nothing of significance. I wanted something more important, something with value. I wanted to do something different.

When I was a physiotherapist, I felt like I was just in a moneymaking business. I had always been drawn to teaching, and I loved working with children when I was training as a physiotherapist too.

Visually, you see the change from when I first came here. The classroom in Murama, Rwamagana, looked like a junkyard. There were pipes hanging around. It was actually dangerous. So we changed that.

The chairs and tables were all lined up in rows. It wasn’t set up as a classroom where a child could be stimulated. I’ve brought ideas like arranging chairs in circles or having mat-based activities.

Theo, the teacher, was very reserved but now he’s very participatory. He’s more knowledgeable about how to use play and not letting children sit in a row.

I am also very proud of the relationships I’ve built with everyone. Many people look at foreigners and think ‘snob’; but they’ve been able to talk to me and realise that I’m just like them. I get told I’m ‘African’!

What are the challenges?

I am not a native English speaker and I’m not fluent in French so language can be a barrier. We can’t always understand each other.

For a while I was on my own, but now I have a national volunteer to help me.

I now value and understand the importance of gesture and body language. We have come up with different ways of explaining things.

What’s life like here?

I’m the only volunteer in this area, but in the wider Rwamagana district there are two more. We don’t always see each other. The wifi connection here is actually better than the one I had when I used to live in the States!

I like to read, and I travel into Kigali to do my shopping- it’s a 40 minute bus ride and another hour on the moto (motorbike taxis). I sometimes meet with the other volunteers in Kigali but I love this.

I love travel, I love meeting a lot of people. Every time I visit a school I get such a warm welcome from the children, they want to play with my hair and my hands. It’s so nice.