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Rwanda immersion group meets president

February 3rd, 2011

JCU students and faculty on the Rwandan immersion trip meet with President Paul Kagame over Winter break. Kagame spoke with the group for an hour and a half.

John Carroll University’s mission statement was proven true this past January when students and faculty and staff members from the University traveled to Rwanda for a 12-day immersion experience in the small African country known as the “Land of a Thousand Hills.”

Well-Known for the tragic 1994 genocide that took the lives of over 500,000 Tutsis and Hutu political moderates, the eight students and four faculty and staff members spent the duration of the trip learning about the genocide’s impact on the Rwandan people. In addition, a large amount of time was spent on learning about the Rwandan government, politics, economy and rich culture of the country.

“Throughout my education I’ve barely been taught about Africa as a continent let alone the different countries it’s composed of,” said junior Jacqueline Wyman. “The things I learned in Rwanda could never be taught in a classroom.”

The members of the immersion trip spent their time learning in the capital city of Kigali, as well as the town of Ginsenyi and rural Butare.

Student coordinators Paulin Byusa and Elizabeth Castellano both seniors, helped facilitate the group for the immersion experience. During the fall semester, the two students held reflective sessions to keep the group together and prepare them for January.

“The group connected really well,” said Byusa. “We didn’t need to put a lot of effort in because everyone meshed well.”

Byusa, originally from the capital city of Kigali, returned home to see his family over the winter break, the first time in a year and a half. He joined the rest of the immersion trip members at the beginning of January, and had the very important duty of translating between Kinyarwanda or French, the official Rwandan languages, and English.

“It was my first time [translating], and it was difficult at the beginning,” said Byusa. “But also some of the group members picked up the language fast.”

Although there was a language barrier between the people of Rwanda and the members of the immersion trip, Wyman said the feeling of an inability to communicate amongst one another didn’t exist.

“[The Rwandan people] were so warm and inviting, and it was nice because as large of a language barrier as there was, it still didn’t feel like there was one because we’re all human,” she said. “Just because they’re in Rwanda doesn’t mean they don’t like the same music, ice cream or other things we do.”

More fulfilling for the students, the experience allowed some to question the media’s portrayal of East African countries, and challenge stereotypes people have about Rwanda, something Byusa deemed an important part of the cultural excursion.

“I’m happy I got to experience Rwanda [in person] because our media portrays a different perspective on East African countries, especially Rwanda,” said Wyman.

An unexpected surprise was the opportunity for the students and faculty and staff members to meet with the Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

“I was honored that he took the time to meet with us,” said Wyman. “Words cannot describe the experience other than it was an honor.”

Kagame, a leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), whose victory over the government in 1994 brought about the end of the genocide, spent an hour and a half talking to  the JCU students.

“kagame has a lot of faith in the youth,” said Byusa. “And he thinks it is important to invest time with the youth. He was very conversational.”

Unlike other JCU immersion trips the Rwandan experience wasn’t service-oriented. The trip helped in developing knowledge of the country and its culture.

“Our purpose was more learning,” said Byusa. “it’s service in another way, because in this cultural exchange you learn a lot about each other, developing great relationships with Rwandans and experiencing Rwanda as a whole.”

For Wyman, the experience helped expand her knowledge of the people of Rwanda and East African culture.

“The purpose of the immersion trip is to immerse yourself in culture,” she said. “There’s some [experiences] that are more service-oriented, but this was more about solidarity. Hands-on service isn’t the only aspect of immersion trips; it’s also to immerse yourself in the culture and to be one with the people.”