Great Expectations: Aspiration, Uncertainty, and Schooling in Rural Rwanda

By Timothy Williams

The capacity to aspire

The capacity to aspire

Since the 1994 genocide, recovery and redevelopment efforts in Rwanda have concentrated on establishing a new economic trajectory — one that places emphasis on macroeconomic stability, wealth creation, and transformation to a formally educated, knowledge-based economy. Central to this approach have been efforts to expand access to basic levels of schooling for young people. While the Rwandan government’s efforts in this area have received recognition (including the 2012 Commonwealth Education Good Practice Award), little is known about how children come to experience and understand the emphasis placed on school-based education, particularly in rural settings, which continue to rely on subsistence-based agriculture. My ongoing doctoral research seeks to explore and explain the meanings children give to their lives and futures, and the role of school-based education within this process. Through nine months of ethnographic fieldwork in a rural Rwandan setting, my project sought to locate the children’s experiences and aspirations in relation to broader social, political, and economic processes.

This blog reports on three emerging findings from my analysis. First, the government’s emphasis on education for individual and national-level development was often reflected in the way children discussed their ideas and hopes for the future. Many hold great expectations about the importance of school-based education for their lives. Radio broadcasts frequently declare ‘education’ – rather than cows or land as used to be in the past – to be ‘your children’s inheritance’ and the key to unlocking the developmental potential for Rwanda’s youth. As ‘Jean Claude,’ aged 18, explained in a focus group:

“For me, education is inheritance. Because sometimes when parents don’t have enough land they cannot divide that land between their kids. That is why they do their best in order to help their children to go to secondary school or vocational school in order to help you to be able to find a job yourself in the future.”

Second, children’s experiences of school were accompanied by ongoing policy related challenges. As Rwanda closes in on global benchmarks (i.e. the MDGs) for educational expansion and access, quality has seemingly lagged behind. Compounding this has been the country’s recent switch from French to English as the medium of instruction in schools. It has had a profound impact upon the classroom-based learning for many children, whose exposure to English often remains limited to the classroom. In a journal writing project, ‘Immaculate’, aged 17, described how the issue of language has come to impact her educational experience:

“In the past, I did well at primary school. We studied in French, so I received support from my mother because she knows French. She explained to me what I did not understand in subjects. A challenge I faced was the shift from the French system to the English system. All subjects are conducted in English. It was not easy because my mother was not able to continue helping me because she doesn’t know English.”

Third, despite a Universal Primary Education policy aimed at ensuring access for all, in Rwanda (as elsewhere), schooling is not fully free. Hence, school-related costs remain a crucial structural barrier to obtaining an education. Basic school materials (e.g. uniforms, books, and pens) along with the other school-related expenses (e.g. mock exams fees, registration expenses, school reports, etc) remain an enduring struggle for many children and their families. Such costs pose serious challenges for successful school attendance, performance, and completion. In a focus group discussion, ‘Saddam,’ aged 16, reported how costs serve to disrupt his educational experience: “When you don’t pay the examination fee they don’t allow you to sit for this exam. So you miss the exam”.

On a conceptual level, I hope that my doctoral work can strengthen the case for including young people’s perspectives within broader research agendas. Their voices should never be invoked as a symbolic gesture or out of a peripheral intellectual interest, but rather on the basis that their perspectives matter. I think the inclusion of children’s perspectives in my project simply made for better, more complete research on an issue that directly that impacted their lives. On a policy level, I am hopeful that this project, and the unique perspective it offers, can contribute to an understanding of how education policies come to be understood and experienced on the ground. It serves to critically examine the presumed link between free education policies and the realization of ‘Education for All’. Greater attention must be placed not only on developing such progressive policies but also examining and evaluating how ‘users’ of the policy (i.e. children, families, and communities) come to understand and experience its effects.

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