wednesday morning after class i rode the back of a bicycle down rocky roads with stellar views, into the countryside, to the home of a rwandan woman called marcelline.  marcelline is 41 years old, with 4 children of her own.  her husband is a teller at a local bank, and therefore the family lives a relatively comfortable life compared to their neighbors, most of whom are subsistence farmers.  what makes this a magical story is that marcelline is a volunteer.  she runs a nursery school out of her backyard.  every morning, monday to friday, she single-handedly teaches over sixty children (forty girls, twenty boys) aged two and a half to six in the art of drawing, singing, counting, playing, traditional dancing, sports, languages, you name it.  all the things that normal kids should be doing at that age. 

clapping their welcome to me and a hello to the camera the children of marcelline’s school marcelline leading the children in song

nursery schools like this one are popping up in various spots around rwanda, initiated by volunteer community members eager to prepare their children for primary school.  one of my fellow vso volunteers, who works in a district education office crunching numbers all day, tells me these ad-hoc nurseries significantly improve students’ performance on primary school national exams.  while primary school is free in rwanda, you must have good results on the primary national exams in order to get into public secondary school which, although not free, is much cheaper than private secondary school.

marcelline’s students, when they’re not sick or kept at home to work shelling peanuts or fetching water, walk up to three kilometers through the rural countryside every morning to come to her nursery school (that’s an african three kilometers, which, as luke and i discovered, could be as much as five or six).  the school is equipped with a small chalkboard, a few benches, pea-sized bits of chalk that are cherished like gold and some pieces of cardboard that they use as slate tablets to learn writing and drawing.  no pens, no notebooks (no crayons or markers or paper or scissors or glue or rulers or pictures or storybooks or toys or blocks or puzzles).  no classroom.  they ‘study’ on her porch, open to the elements, in a space maybe ten foot square.

look what i did learning to draw with chalk and bits of blackboard the classroom - really the porch of marcelline’s house, open to the elements, a few benches and a small blackboard

but marcelline has something going for her (that is, other than the incredible patience, caring, and selflessness required to teach sixty munchkins in your own home without pay or help), which is that she’s trained.  she went through an ngo-sponsored training course to learn how to teach in nursery school.  but there weren’t any nursery schools in her village, let alone the rest of the district.  so she started her own.  i watched her work with the kids in a call and response game that helps them learn movement and confidence and social skills.  i watched her bring a crying child (crying because of hunger) back into the group to play with the others, while at the same time leading red-rover-come-over, and talking to me, all without losing control of one single child.  amazing.

sports - waiting for red rover to come over marcelline with kids crowded around, singing and dancing a call and response me being hugged by adorable little kids

i am inspired by this woman, and i want to help any way i can.  and so i send this plea home – dig out those old crayons, picture books, puzzles, the ones that are sitting in your attic collecting dust, and send them to my mom to bring with her when she and my dad visit me in three weeks.  or if you can’t find any crayons, send a bit of money to help marcelline buy chalk, pens, paper, and more benches.  or collect a bit more money from friends and family to help her build a small schoolhouse (estimated cost $1800 for a two-room building), or take on another teacher to help her manage all the kids.  whatever your budget, look into your heart today and help support a woman who’s doing the best she can.

check out these video clips: learning body partsnursery kids singing, call and response, counting

~ by aliciawolcott on March 1, 2008.

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