From the forest to first in his class
With support from UNICEF volunteers, Marcel transformed from school drop-out to classroom success story
NGORORERO, Rwanda – “I live down there, between those two avocado trees.”
Marcel gestured down into the valley. I squinted, trying to discern which of the identical green hills he pointed at.
“I don’t see it,” I said.
Marcel started walking, disappearing over the hill as he descended.
Back in the classroom, Marcel had told me how he dropped out of his penultimate year of primary school, wanting to help his parents by earning some money.
But unbeknownst to them, he had vanished into the nearby Gishwati Forest to herd cows, where some men promised to pay him and other boys 8,000 Rwandan francs per month – less than 10 dollars.
“But where did you sleep?” I asked, incredulous.
“With the cows,” Marcel said pragmatically. As if it was the obvious answer.
Walking briskly down the mountain to meet Marcel’s family, I thought sarcastically that I might drop out, too, if I had to make this uphill trek every morning.
The cow herders never paid Marcel, so he returned home, but still spent another year looking for odd jobs before returning to school.
“We visited Marcel’s father and asked for his support,” said Liberée Mukeshimana, Marcel’s mathematics teacher.
Liberée has taught Marcel for three years. “He is a brilliant student,” she said.
“Marcel always received excellent marks. He really needed to come back to school.”
I met Marcel’s father, Vedaste, who was adamant that he always wanted Marcel to complete his studies.
But encouragement from his parents and teachers was not enough. Marcel needed an extra push, and I wanted to know more. I struggled back up the mountain, heaving as small children ran effortlessly ahead.
“When I met the volunteers from the Tugane Ishuri project, I was at home and not studying,” Marcel recalled, sitting with me in an empty classroom.
“I saw them visiting other homes around me, and finally they came to mine. After discussing with them, I felt I should return to school, so I found some notebooks and now I am studying well.”
Liberée confirmed. “He now ranks consistently at the top of his class.”
With the Young Women’s Christian Association in Rwanda, UNICEF selected and trained 160 youth volunteers in Ngororero District to help curb school drop-out in their communities. Working with local leaders and school administration, the volunteers of Tugane Ishuri – or “let’s go to school” in Kinyarwanda – helped re-enrol over 1,200 children like Marcel in just six months.
“How did they convince you to go back?” I asked. “What exactly did they say?”
“To be honest, I was not convinced at first,” he said. “But they told me that children who complete school have opportunities for a better life. That I can easily find a job later if I focus on studying now.”
The corners of his mouth twitched, trying to betray his unwavering eye contact with a smile.
“I am so happy that I have returned to school. I have time to play with other children, study and be happy.”
"I am in Primary 6 now, and next year I will go to secondary school," said Marcel.
I leaned forward on the wooden desk. “And what about after that?” I asked.
Marcel responded quickly, without skipping a beat.
“I want to be the mayor, or an executive in my community. I want to be a leader.”