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Joseph’s Opportunity - What a Great Experience!
Monday, 04 August 2008 Written by Valerie Kae Ken

Joseph and Valerie

A bit of Background

I am Canadian. I live in Calgary, Alberta. For the past ten years, I have been involved in two projects in Africa that involve Tailoring Schools one in Uganda at St. Francis Family Helper Program, Nyamitanga, Mbarara district and one in Rwanda at CFJ Padri Vjeko School in the village of Kivumu near Gitarama. I have written and implemented the teaching programs for the two schools. I continue to assist both projects by supporting the teachers in their work, and by gathering resource materials to build up the school libraries. I have been doing this work as a volunteer since 1996, going to Africa as often as I can afford the time and cost.

Joseph in CanadaThe idea came to us in January of this year – why not try to get a teacher from CFJ Padri Vjeko School to travel to Canada and attend a Fashion College in Olds, Alberta!! The intention was to improve his teaching skills by having this teacher participate in classes and observe techniques used by the Canadian instructors. This new found knowledge and skills would then be delivered back to the other teachers in Kivumu and would benefit CFJ Padri Vjeko School. I approached the college in Canada and was met with an amazing amount of cooperation and interest by the Vice-President of Academics and by the Director of the Fashion program.

We selected Joseph Nzirorera, a young man who was teaching in our tailoring division of CFJ Padri Vjeko School as a likely candidate for the adventure.  In an incredibly short time frame we managed to get all the paperwork done and by the end of February he was on his way!

Let me tell you about Joseph Nzirorera

Joseph is a young man (29 years of age). His life story is one of great difficulty and tragedy.  Joseph contracted polio at a young age and walks with the aid of crutches. In 1982, when Joseph was three, his father, Athanas Ryimarande, died.  Nonetheless, he managed to get a primary school education with the help of a Franciscan priest, Fra Vjeko Curic, who took him in as a youngster along with a group of children with similar disabilities.

Joseph and other children

In 1993, after completing his primary education, Joseph returned to his village of Kagano Nyamasheke, in Cyangugu district in the south-west of Rwanda. In 1994 Joseph’s mother, Marie Mukangango who was a Tutsi, was massacred during the genocide. Joseph was only 15 years at the time.  After the genocide, Joseph returned to Kivumu to seek help once again from Fra Vjeko to get a pair of badly needed crutches.  He remained in the area and was informally adopted by Oswaldi, a man who is the cook at the Franciscan friary.

In 1998 Fra Vjeko Curic, the priest who had helped him so much, was murdered in Kigali.  Some time after, Joseph began attending sewing classes at a local secondary school built by the Franciscans to honour the priest who spent his life helping Rwandans.  But there was no formal course of education and the facilities were very basic, lacking good equipment and supplies.  He studied for two years and then tried to make a living as a tailor in the nearby town of Gitarama.  In 2004, another Franciscan, Fra Ivica Peric was sent from Uganda to take over the development of the school and he asked Joseph to become one of the teachers.  Joseph was sent to Uganda to the Tailoring school at St. Francis Family Helper Project to study for a year and it was there that I first encountered him.  I was doing some work at the Ugandan school and I was told about this young man who showed much promise and worked so hard at his studies.

In 2006, I later met Joseph again in Rwanda where I was working to develop the curriculum for the tailoring school.  I was most impressed with Joseph’s dedication and loyalty to the school as well as his strong work ethic. He put much effort into his teaching duties and was always enthusiastic when given any task.

Joseph in snowy CalgaryFor many reasons, we chose Joseph to represent the school and travel to Canada. He was serious about a future for himself and he put much effort and attention into any assignment he was given. For example, about one month before leaving for Canada, he was asked to study English on his own, with just the aid of tapes and books. Joseph took up the task eagerly, without even knowing where he was going, or when!

So there he was, on February 29th, 2008, on a flight out of Kigali bound for Calgary via Nairobi, Kenya and London, England. I can only imagine his inner excitement as he was traveling onboard an aircraft for the first time in his life! Any previous travel in Rwanda, by bus or car from a village to Kigali must have paled in comparison to his new adventure. I can just picture him in London Heathrow airport; a busy scene of rushing travelers, fancy duty-free shops, constant overhead announcements and a selection of foods like he had never seen before.  I am told that he did a few tours of the London airport departure lounge just to enjoy the activity around him!

Joseph arrived to Calgary in the late afternoon of Saturday, March 1st and was met by the last gasp of winter in western Canada (or so we thought)!!!  He had left the warm, rainy temperatures of Rwanda behind only to come to bitterly cold weather in Alberta with snow still lying in pockets along the roadways and the trees bare of any sort of greenery.

Joseph & my motherJoseph stayed at my home for the first two days after he arrived.  He knew me because I had been in Rwanda a number of times, helping at CFJ Padri Vjeko Tailoring School and he knew my daughter, Jackline whom I have adopted from Uganda. She and Joseph could even converse in their own languages - Joseph speaking in Kinyarwanda and Jackline speaking her native Runyankore. So it wasn’t too strange for him.  I introduced Joseph to my family that weekend and my mother, who will be 88 years old this summer, welcomed Joseph with gifts of freshly baked bread buns, and home-made strawberry jam which he finished off in no time!

Joseph at Olds College

Joseph at Olds College, Olds, AlbertaJoseph did not have much time to rest after his long journey. He had to be at the College in Olds, a small town 100 kilometers north of Calgary on the Monday. We managed a quick shopping trip to outfit Joseph with what he would need. He would be eating at the school cafeteria for most of his meals. The college had arranged a great place for him to stay while on the campus – a fully furnished house with three bedrooms that is used for hosting international students. Joseph was able to get from his place of residence to the school with little trouble; although, one day he and his crutches managed to get “baptized” a second time by taking a serious fall in the snow! We thought that winter would soon be over, but…… alas…. we had at least three more heavy snowfalls for Joseph to “enjoy”! But, he never complained …. not even once!


Olds College, Olds, Alberta
Olds College, Olds, Alberta

Joseph quickly got into the routine of the classes and impressed everyone with how hard he worked. He participated fully in the exercises and completed all his assignments as directed. He fitted into the group of students who opened their hearts and helped him out in many ways.

Inuk & JosephOne student in particular was really good to Joseph. Inuk, a young woman living in The North West Territories, whose mother is Eskimo (her description) and whose father was born in Germany, is not only gifted in creativity, but is a warm, loving person with a heart of real gold. As well as graduating from the fashion college, she is a very talented woman in her own right – an accomplished artist in the skill of creating beautiful artworks made by Caribou Tufting – and has taken part in exhibitions as faraway as Siberia and Japan. We are seriously hoping that Inuk will come to Rwanda and perhaps grace us with her talent and teachings.

Joseph was warmly welcomed into the professional community at the college. The instructors were very helpful and spent extra time with him to allow him to understand the methods of teaching and what was expected of the students. This was one of the reasons for Joseph attending the classes – to learn the teaching practices in North America and to perhaps adapt what he has learned in Canada when he arrives back in Kivumu.

Joseph in the classroomThe classes could not have been better chosen. Joseph was able to participate in an advanced Pattern Making class, a “Contemporary Tailoring class (sewing a more casual type of jacket) and a class in Clothing Alterations. Joseph was also invited to attend three weeks of classes with teachers from Mexico who teach English as a second language in their home country.




Joseph with Fra Ivica and a Croatian Canadian family from EdmontonJoseph’s stay at Olds has created much interest.  An article was written about Joseph in the College newsletter “Horizons” and this same piece was published in the town of Olds’ newspaper, capturing the attention of some of the town’s citizens. Many people responded with interest in helping Joseph personally and also others who are in need. Some are now very interested in our school in Rwanda and have made donations to the project. These people opened their hearts and wallets to make a difference in the lives of others who are less fortunate and for that we are very grateful.

Joseph at Olds College with the photographer & her childrenJoseph’s stay at Olds has created much interest. An article was written about Joseph in the College newsletter “Horizons” and this same piece was published in the town of Olds’ newspaper, capturing the attention of some of the town’s citizens.  Many people responded with interest in helping Joseph personally and also others who are in need. Some are now very interested in our school in Rwanda and have made donations to the project. These people opened their hearts and wallets to make a difference in the lives of others who are less fortunate and for that we are very grateful.


It has not been all work for Joseph ...

When he first arrived in Canada, Easter was just “around the corner”, so Joseph spent the holiday weekend in Calgary and took part in the celebrations, both at church and at my family’s homes. I have a large family and many of us gathered together for the Easter occasion. Joseph even had an Easter basket on Easter morning - a tradition in my family. He awoke to find the Easter rabbit” had left him lots of “goodies” including candies, and small gifts. Smiles!.

Joseph with his basket of Easter “goodies”

Jackie & Joseph cracking Easter eggs

Joseph with Tim Shaw at the Dinosaur Museum

Joseph on horsebackJoseph had a number of wonderful opportunities to enjoy life in Canada. A family from Olds who have been so hospitable to many foreign visitors, befriended him and took Joseph to some of Alberta’s great attractions. He visited the world famous Tyrell Museum in Drumheller and saw the magnificent dinosaur exhibits as well as viewing the spectacular vista surrounding the museum itself. He went horse-back riding in the badlands of Alberta. He visited in the homes of many Canadians and enjoyed meals with new friends, tasting foods that he had never known before.



Joseph with the Shaw family in Olds, Alberta


Jackline became a Canadian citizenRecently, we celebrated a wonderful event when my daughter, Jackline became a Canadian citizen on June 5th, 2008. The ceremony was very emotional, as one hundred and five persons from twenty-six different countries became Canadian citizens on that day. We were very proud to be celebrating this day and it was fortunate that Joseph was able to be with us!

Joseph with my mother, my sister & her familyJoseph finished his studies at Olds College at the beginning of June. I collected him from the campus residence, along with his books, papers and anything else that he had accumulated or been given during his three month stay. Joseph spent the remainder of his time in Calgary. For his last week in Canada, he was busy at the computer in my home acquiring typing skills. As with everything he does, Joseph concentrated hard and became very good! His computer skills improved daily and he even began developing a course of study and used ideas that he had learned while at the College in Olds. My family had one last get-together at my home to say farewell to Joseph.

Joseph at Banff Hot SpringsBefore he left Canada, we wanted Joseph to enjoy the natural beauty of our country, so two days before he departed, we drove out to Banff so he could experience the majestic grace of the Rocky Mountains.

Time went by quickly and now Joseph has left. Joseph has now returned to Rwanda and he no doubt is beginning to think what he will do with his new-found knowledge and skills. It will be interesting to see what he does with this information and how it will help the school in Kivumu. He has been a great ambassador of his country and we are the richer for having known him and enjoyed his company.

Joseph, Jackie and I at the edge of the Bow River in BanffI believe people in Canada have seen how someone can overcome hardship to strive for something better in life if they live it with honesty, integrity and hard work. Joseph has suffered, not only with a physical disability and poverty, but with the loss of both of his parents and the priest who helped him as a young boy. Yet, he has the strength of faith, the gift of patience, the good fortune of opportunity, the ethic of hard work and the will to succeed. It is inspiring to meet someone who has overcome so much and who has the ability to see the future with hope.

Father Vjeko Center

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