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Hope for Trauma’s Children

The beginnings of early childhood education in Rwanda drew one Wheaton professor to this East African nation to better understand the task ahead for Rwanda’s teachers, many of whom were children themselves during the 1994 genocide. by Jeremy Weber ‘05


Last summer, Dr. Susan Hayes Greener ’83 spent 11 days in the most mountainous region of Rwanda. The associate professor of intercultural studies was not in Musanze, one of the top tourist destinations in East Africa, on vacation to see the nearby volcanic peaks and mountain gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey and Gorillas in the Mist.

Instead, Dr. Greene was training teachers in order to help friend and former colleague Rev. Dr. Laurent Mbanda, an innovative Anglican bishop who has opened almost 200 preschools in his diocese’s churches over the past two years, and hopes to open 150 more. Dr. Greener previously designed early childhood development programs at Compassion International; Mbanda was her boss.

Preschools are uncommon in Musanze, where children normally start school at age 7. And given the area’s 50 percent literacy rate, most available teachers lack the proper training in early childhood education.

So Dr. Greener, whose faculty missions trip was funded by the Wheaton College Alumni Association, traveled to Musanze with her husband Rev. Jay Greener ’82, rector of Church of the Redeemer in Highland Park, Illinois, which has long worked with Mbanda’s Diocese of Shyira, and funds a school for orphans.

“Young children in Rwanda typically receive little adult investment beyond custodial care until they are older,” Dr. Greener says. Though she planned carefully for her trip based on her previous global work, she realized when she arrived, “I first needed to listen and learn from the teachers, which resulted in some significant changes to my plans.”

The challenges facing the preschool initiative are many. The typical preschool has 100 children per class, yet only two teachers. Most teachers only have an elementary education, in which they experienced rote learning and “seat work” instead of the multi-sensory methods needed in early childhood education. Access to training is difficult to obtain, given the rural and hilly location of most Shyira churches. Teaching materials are scarce.

Such problems are unfortunately common in the developing world. But a challenge distinct to Rwanda is the after- effects of the densely populated nation’s 1994 genocide, in which longstanding ethnic tensions erupted in the slaughter of an estimated 800,000 people.

In order to contextualize her training, Dr. Greener visited some of the genocide memorials scattered throughout Rwanda today. Most are in churches where people had gathered seeking sanctuary, but instead were slaughtered. Frozen in her memory is a visit to a Sunday school room at Nytarama Catholic Church, where young children had been placed in hopes that they would be spared. She saw for herself what remains 18 years later: a large stain where marauders had swung the children by their feet and smashed their heads against the brick wall.

Rwandans don’t like to talk much about the genocide, says Dr. Greener, but the effects of trauma impede the preschool effort, as many of the teachers were the children who lost their families or witnessed the atrocities. “The lack of loving parenting these teachers received has crippled their own ability to parent well. Toddlers or preschoolers are often left unsupervised, and thus vulnerable to accidents and abuse.”

Dr. Greener conducted interactive training sessions with 34 teachers covering topics including lesson planning, classroom management, and the normal development of 3-to-5-year-olds—but also the importance of children in the biblical story.

Given the lack of local curriculum and classroom materials, Dr. Greener helped teachers maximize their creativity by using “found objects” to conduct lessons. For instance, one exercise involved using stones, a piece of cloth, and an apple-sized Rwandan peace basket to tell the biblical story of Jesus’ feeding the 5,000.

The group ended up spending much time discussing discipline. Dr. Greener taught teachers various forms of positive reinforcement to replace the harsh verbal and physical discipline common within Rwandan families. She also discussed how teachers can model God’s love to their students.

“We talked about how teachers are a model of God the Father to these children,” she says. “And this ties into the physical discipline issue. How do you want God the Father to discipline you?”

Despite the challenges, Dr. Greener was struck by the community’s strengths and assets. Each family contributes 80 cents per month per child, so the school doesn’t rely on outside grants or Western resources. And despite the 50:1 student- teacher ratio, sufficient learning is able to take place because cultural behavior norms are different.

“In the United States, we socialize for independence: ‘You are special. You should be able to freely choose what activity you wish to pursue,’” she says. “But Rwanda is a collectivist society where the group takes precedence, so classrooms don’t have the degree of chaos that you might expect. Children are more compliant. They are more content to be still, to cooperate with one another, and to listen to adults.”

Impressed with the enthusiasm of the teachers, Dr. Greener says, “They were excited that these kinds of schools were starting at all, and feeling very anticipatory about what difference this might make. Being a teacher holds some respect and status, so they also had pride in the opportunity.”

Rwanda teachers

Invited to return to conduct more training sessions, Dr. Greener says this opportunity to train teachers on the front lines in East Africa has proven vital to her own teaching.

“It’s so easy to read about things—even things that you know well—and forget how exhausting and discouraging it can be on the front lines,” she says. “If I’m teaching about poverty and the developing world, it’s important to be reconnected to the reality of what that’s like, and reminded of the humanity of those who are working with kids. These people need the same love, community, and care that anyone does.”

But what Dr. Greener most appreciated was the opportunity to support what she believes is one of the world’s most fruitful mission fields: children.

“Children are the most open to influence,” she says, noting that teaching at the preschool level is an opportunity to impact not just early spiritual growth, but also emotional and physical well-being.

“It’s also acknowledging that children play a strong role in God’s story throughout the history of the church,” she continues. “Children are used in important ways and have spiritual gifts. They are full members of the family of God, and we often forget this. So bringing them into that place of spiritual nurture as soon as possible, for as long as possible, is the best way to equip them for life.”

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