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From school drop-out to superstar: How Elias saved 45 children's education

Alone, scared and running for his life, Elias Musabyimana was just ten years old when he survived the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis. It left him deeply traumatised, but determined to dedicate his time, skills and energy to making a better world.

Now 32, with a degree and five years in senior teaching roles in his native Rwanda under his belt, Elias began volunteering with VSO Rwanda on its Enhancing the Quality of Early Childhood Education in Rwanda (EQUECER II) project. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty – even going house to house to persuade parents to bring 45 out-of-school nursery-aged children back to be educated.

Elias Musabyimana national volunteer EQUECER VSO Rwanda

Elias Musabyimana, 32, explaining the importance of early childhood education at a community awareness-raising event

Childhood

“I remember we were a poor family, but at least we could find something to eat. It was my father, my mother, me and four other brothers and sisters, and my father’s first wife and her four children. My favourite thing to do when I was still young was playing with other children at home and at primary school. I was cunning, very cheeky!

“Our parents were farmers. They had a few goats and it helped us to study. When they needed money for school fees they could just sell a goat.”

The end of the world

“Do I remember 1994? I can’t forget it. We had to hide. It wasn’t easy because it was our neighbours who were chasing us. We had to hide wherever we went because they could find us.

“I remember we were hidden in the house as a family when people came to kill us. But they heard my stepmother with the child she had making a sound in their hiding place. They went to them instead and killed them. He was my older brother. I was 10 years old and I knew what was happening.

“After some time I got separated from my family. I was alone. I could not see any other person. It was as if the world was ending.

Trauma

“People would see me and say ‘there is still one there, take him!’ and I would just run and run. Sometimes I would fall into people who were dead. I was very traumatised.

“It must have been one month I was alone. It was not easy. You could spend five days without eating. At night I came out when I thought people must be sleeping and dig up cassava and potatoes with my hands.

“When soldiers came we tried to join them. Eventually they brought us to a refugee camp. My father, mother and two brothers were there. I thought I was dreaming. I had never expected to see them again. I had lost all hope. We all had. My mother cried, maybe they were tears of happiness.

Out of school

“I was out of school for almost three years. All my teachers were killed, my classmates, my neighbours. I could not see the good in school. I could not see the point.

“After counselling, I understood I have to go back to school. At the age of 13, I went back into Primary 4. When I finished I sat the exams for the seminary – the school for boys who can become priests. Somehow I passed and I went there for six years. It was very hard. It was English language and I did not know how to speak it at first. I just kept trying.

“I could see after school that it is not easy to find a job in Rwanda. So I applied to study education at university with that idea: that it would help me get become employed as a teacher. Once I began studying I realised it was my vocation.

Deciding to change the world

“I realised I wanted to change the world. I thought, how can I do that? How, in Rwanda? I thought a teacher can do that by giving their time to society and educating the people. I also realised I like children very much, I feel very happy when I am around them.

“I graduated in 2011. A year after graduating I became deputy head teacher of a government school. Later I was a school-based mentor helping teachers improve their English as a language of instruction. It was part of a VSO project in the local community.”

Inspired to volunteer

“There was a man from Uganda. He was a volunteer. He inspired me. I would always ask him about VSO. ‘Can I come and work with you so I can help my people: my colleagues, the children?’

“In April this year I became a VSO volunteer. I am working to enhance the quality of early childhood education in Nyaruguru district. I’m proud of being a volunteer. 

"God gave me my life. When God gives to you, you must give. So I like this philosophy of VSO.

“Something I have is the talent of connecting with people. People love me and they are ready to understand me. When I tell people my story they get passionate, they ask for my help.

Bringing children back to school

ECE pupils supported by VSO volunteers in Rwanda VSO/Kayibanda Alice

Nursery pupils supported by VSO volunteers like Elias in Rwanda. He has single handedly brought 45 children like this back to school.

“After speaking with the schools I work with, I decided to go house to house with some teachers telling parents about the opportunities of early childhood education and persuading them to bring their children to school. Even the parents respond to my way of communicating.

“In total I have brought 45 children back to school. That is just the ones in early childhood education – some children have also returned to primary and secondary school.

“When I visit schools, I see the children who have returned are still there. Some of them recognise me and they come to hug me. I feel very proud. God gave me a very good gift. I know I can do more if I have the opportunity.

“I thank VSO so much for the work it is doing for Rwanda – I can see the impact it is having on my country. I feel proud we are giving a big result.”

Learn more about volunteering in Rwanda