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My experience in Kivumu, Rwanda
Sunday, 01 April 2007 Written by Valerie Kae Ken

Valerie Kae KenLooking back on the pattern of my life, I can see now that everything was leading me to the work that I have been doing in Africa. I am Canadian. In 1979 I was living in Germany when I decided to take up a course of study in Clothing Design and Production at the London College of Fashion in England. Little did I know that one day I would be using my education and skills to set up Tailoring School programs in Africa!

It all began when I met an Irish woman named Mary Moran, a nun who had spent much of her life in Uganda and who was also studying at the college in England. In the years following, we kept in touch and in 1995 Mary contacted me in Canada to ask if I would help her begin a Tailoring school at her project, St. Francis Family Helper Programme in Nyamitanga, Mbarara, Uganda. We met together in England to choose equipment and machines for the school and she convinced me to come to Uganda in 1996.

From the moment my foot touched African soil, I was “hooked”. For the past ten years I have traveled back to Africa as often as I can afford the airfare. While at St. Francis project, I taught clothing design and tailoring skills and then later wrote the program for others to teach. To this day, a number of my first students continue as very competent teachers at the school. I try to support them by supplying new course material and resources like patterns, books and sewing equipment.

My very first visit to the country of Rwanda was in 1998, a month after Fra Vjeko Curic was killed. At that time, I was doing my volunteer work with the Tailoring school in Uganda. I was invited to go to Rwanda for a few days by Fra Ivica Peric, and out of curiosity to witness the country that had so recently suffered the tragedy of the genocide, I accepted the offer. I remember a sense of uneasiness during this first visit. There was a curfew in place that was being enforced, where one had to be off the roads by dark. It was unnerving and unsettling. I remember sitting around one evening at the Kivumu friary when tales were told of the terrible killings that had taken place. I also remember the unsmiling, unwelcoming faces that I saw along the roadsides as we passed by in our vehicle… people stared at us with a look of vacancy, of non-expression………. not so much with hostility or suspicion…. just non-expression.

Now, when visiting Kivumu years after that first visit in 1998, I see quite a different picture. There is curiosity on the faces of the young and I sense a cordial, quiet welcome from the older students at the Centre de Formation Pere Vjeko. When Fra Ivica was later sent to live in Rwanda in 2003, he took on the task of building the school begun by Fra Vjeko Curic. He invited me to develop the teaching program for his Tailoring School in Kivumu and I gladly accepted the challenge. As well as creating the curriculum, my initial intent was to work directly with the teachers to help them improve on their delivery of the course information.

After a number of visits to Rwanda, I have come to know the teachers at the school; the majority of whom are fine, hardworking dedicated individuals with a strong desire to learn and to help others, despite having little formal education themselves. One of the teachers isAmina, a young woman from Uganda who has come to be very important to the success of the Tailoring School. She has wisdom beyond her years (as so many Africans do). She is very committed and it shows in her enthusiasm and the way that she eagerly embraces new knowledge. Joseph, a male teacher in the program, is equally committed. Joseph has a physical disability and walks with the aid of crutches. His disability in no way impairs his teaching ability…in fact, I believe that it has likely made him an even better role model. He is a testament to what difficulties one can overcome if they really want to succeed. The other two teachers who assist in the tailoring program are both dedicated to developing their teaching skills and to giving the students any help they can.

The program that we are delivering to the tailoring students is a comprehensive course of study with emphasis on quality work. The students are receiving valuable information and developing strong skills that will later allow them to be self supporting and perhaps even to provide a living for a family of their own. The intention is to provide the students with skills that can take them back to the villages where they may have to work without the aid of electricity (or, indeed…in some cases…even sewing machines) or it can prepare them for work in a very highly developed industry, should a company choose to invest in Rwanda with a view to setting up a clothing production business.

We plan to teach business studies to all the school divisions (tailoring, wood-working and brick-laying construction) in their final term of study. This, along with a knowledge of French, mathematics and some computer skills will hopefully give the graduating students a good start in having a small business of their own should they decide to do so.

StudentsIt has been a long journey to this point in the development of the program, and I am thrilled and inspired by the hard work going on at the school. I feel a “buzz” around me when I enter the classrooms. The students are all busily engaged in activity. I admit that my fingers actually “itch” to get in there and work alongside of them.

The sewing classrooms are the finest that I have ever seen…the students are so fortunate to have such an exciting environment to learn in. They have access to machines of all types, from simple treadle machines to complicated industrial overlockers (seam edge finishing machines) and a “hemmer”, as well as an embroidery machine.

I am always impressed with how quickly the staff and students are able to become skilled at using the various machines.

The ModelWith the help of one of the students, I even managed to make a dressmaking mannequin (with an “African” shape…..smiles) that is most useful for demonstration purposes. I cooked up a batch of glue (old recipe from my mother) and obtained a stack of newsprint from the school supplies. Then, I managed to convince a young female student to let me “paste” her with papier-mache. I removed the shape and after further shaping and drying, I covered it with foam and fabric. The wooden pieces for our new mannequin were made by the wood-working staff. It took several days, but the result was worth the effort.

The Carpentry division of the school is equally well-equipped and the students have the opportunity to learn wood-working skills using quality tools and machines. With the aid of a generator, the wood-working students are able to make good use of the electric machines. Much of their work, however, is done with the use of hand-tools and the standard of their work improves daily with the results being most impressive.

As well as being involved with the Tailoring School, I have even, on occasion, been asked to do the odd bit of work at the Carpentry division ….including developing an outline for the study course and even marking horizontal lines on a wall using a laser beam level and powdered-chalk line………I think the students are amazed (or amused) to see a woman doing this kind of work ……..smiles.

Carpentry section

One difficulty we have at the school is to keep the machines in good operating condition. To do this, we need to have enough parts on hand to do the repairs and, of course, we need to have someone who is capable and experienced enough to do the repairs. Keeping control of the inventory for the supplies that are needed is also quite a challenge. Our donated supplies and equipment are very valuable as we cannot buy them locally, so they are not easily replaced.

The school itself is a beehive of activity. While I am there, I usually “take over” a spot in the director’s office, using the computer equipment at my disposal to complete some of the courses of instruction and to revise the existing program material to better meet the needs of the graduating students.

The directorWhen I have planned for my visits to Rwanda, much of my preparation includes gathering commercial patterns, books and videos that can be used for instruction at the school. Little by little, we are trying to build up a library of information that can be accessed by both the instructors and the students. It is very important to get the students involved in their own course of study…. to motivate them to meet the challenges of the course content. The books in the library can hopefully encourage the students to create new ideas rather than just copy. Often in African schools, the students are taught by memorization and copying and the concept of imagination is discouraged.

We are trying to present a program of study that gives the students the opportunity to develop skills according to their abilities and their circumstances. By circumstances, I mean that when they have completed their studies, they will be as qualified to work in an upscale shop producing quality goods as going back to a village where there is no electricity and they are obliged to work using “local tailoring” methods.

The school runs like clockwork… beginning at 8:00 a.m. and ending at 4:30 p.m., broken at regular intervals for the change of classes by a most unusual bell-ringing procedure. The watchman, an elderly security guard who is also a time-keeper, has the amazing ability to spend all day “watching” his watch. When the appointed time for a change of class or end of morning study period comes, he slowly or quickly…..(depending upon how much time he feels he has to arrive at exactly the appointed time…smiles…) walks over to where a rusted tire rim lays on the pavement at the entrance to one of the classrooms. He solemnly picks up a carefully chosen stone that he has carefully placed beside the tire rim and strikes “BANG BANG” !!! against the tire rim. It scares the life of out me every time! ! ! and then, just as calmly, he walks away………

OswaldiWhile I am in Kivumu, I have been fortunate to be invited stay at the friary with the Franciscan community who are so warm and welcoming. It is truly a unique experience to travel from one’s home country and then to feel equally at home someplace half-way around the globe! I have enjoyed the many wonderful meals made by Oswaldi, one of the best cooks I have ever come across in my travels worldwide. Oswaldi can create a culinary masterpiece by instinct. He uses whatever ingredients are on hand and makes up his meal accordingly. The result is a tasty concoction with all sorts of flavours and textures…sometimes even a little strange…...(like the time he put cinnamon in the cabbage dish….smiles!!)

I truly feel that I have received far more than I have ever been able to give. I am so grateful for having had the opportunity to assist in the development of the school. The satisfaction I receive from observing the teachers and the students totally immersed in their work is immeasurable. I believe that it is important that the school “belong” to the Rwandans…. that they develop a sense of pride and loyalty to the school. In this way, it will become a part of the community and will succeed because of their own efforts.

Valerie and JacklineNow that I am back in Canada, I reflect on the time I have spent in Rwanda and in Uganda. One of the greatest gifts that I have received from my work in Africa is the adoption of my daughter, Jackline. She has finally been able to come to live with me in Canada (as of May, 2006). She is a real joy in my life and is much loved by everyone that she encounters.

I consider how very fortunate I have been in my life to enjoy a loving family, good friends and unlimited opportunity for education. I contrast this with what I have witnessed in Africa. Yet, despite the daily hardships, the poverty and the suffering that so many people in Rwanda struggle with, there is a sense of hope for the future. This is most important and is a valuable lesson. No matter what hardships we are faced with, I truly believe that there is always hope for something better.

Father Vjeko Center

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