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Faith builds a future

08 April 2016

Faith Uwantege sold everything she had to build a school in a Rwandan village. Jemima Thackray met her

A teacher and her charges: Faith Uwantege and some of the 160 pupils at the rented house that currently serves as their school

A teacher and her charges: Faith Uwantege and some of the 160 pupils at the rented house that currently serves as their school

IN THE West, we would call Faith Uwantege an entrepreneur. To create her own foundation and begin building a school in her community in Rwanda, Ms Uwantege drained her own personal savings. “The scariest moment was when I stopped work to concentrate on this path, even if it came naturally to me,” Ms Uwantege says. She now has to lodge with a friend in order to care for the 160 children who attend the Kinigi village school.

But her motivation was not material gain, or personal ambition, or the thrill of the risk: it was simply the thought of one child’s life transformed. “Giving an education to a child changes him or her. You can see a difference immediately. Children thrive in an atmosphere of peace and mutual respect. Suddenly, learning is something they do rather than others.”

Ms Uwantege’s social entrepreneurship was born when she worked for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) as an interpreter in the refugee camps. “I met so many homeless people with their children, often HIV positive; I remember many nights lying awake crying for those children. But it was here in Kinigi that I realised that the desperate are not just in refugee camps.

“It started with a family, a really poor family, living near my work. I dropped in daily just to make sure that they had something to eat. News spread, and there they were — so many hungry families with none of their children at school, doomed to begging on the roads. I could do a little, one child per family, perhaps give a basic education. I rented a house, got a teacher and a cook. Before I knew it, numbers grew to 160.”


THE next step in Ms Uwantege’s strategy was to garner financial support from benefactors in order to build their own school premises. She approached anyone she thought would listen to her vision. A Canadian church gave generously, and then, one day, she met an Englishman, Nick Hills, who was on holiday with his family to see the famous mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

“Faith came to us one night after supper,” Mr Hills says. “She had heard that my wife had some children’s clothes which she had brought with her to Rwanda. From the start, Faith was distinguished by an optimism which, at first blush, might have been called naïve. Her opening pitch was: ‘I believe in miracles.’ Then she began the long, gentle explanation of how she had come so far. I have never seen a person more determined than Faith.”

Mr Hills visited the school the next day. “Seeing her standing among the rows of children, it didn’t seem outlandish to let them have a bit of money — seed money, I suppose — to help them get going,” Mr Hills says. “Giving is an emotive subject, with all manner of reasons which prevent it happening easily. Taking upon oneself the responsibilities which are rightly those of the local state gave me pause.

“But, just occasionally, I think we should let ourselves be ruled by our reaction to a person. I was pretty sure I could trust Faith. Maybe there were some holes in her business plan; but it’s the person, not the plan. Sometimes, one just has to give without conditions. Sometimes one has just to see if someone will take what’s offered and run with it.”


FAST-FORWARD six months: Ms Uwantege has now bought herself a plot of land, designed a school to be built in three phases, organised her contractors, and is already busy with the early stages of the build. The process has been more difficult, and more heartening than she expected. Challenges have included problems with the survey, her own NGO status, the price of materials, water supply, and insuring her workforce.

The latter has been an issue because, importantly, this is an entirely Rwandan project with a Rwandan vision, staffed exclusively by local people. This is in contrast to other foundations and agencies, which tend to be led by European or American money, and have a foreigner at the head.

From the beginning, Ms Uwantege has been determined to make it a community venture in which everyone can share. But this has had an impact on the building process. Rather than pay the high costs of a building plant, teams of manual workers have dug the foundations by hand, and manhandled the larger stones — even hand-cutting the smaller stones.

There are now about 35 people building the school, largely parents of the children. In a community that has such a high rate of poverty and unemployment, the fact that the Faith Foundation can also be an employer is an unexpected bonus. Indeed, these families are some of the poorest in a poor country. “For many children, the porridge that we give them is their only meal of the day,” Ms Uwantege says. Most of them have had no education to speak of, and, for their parents, the daily struggle to survive leaves little time to think about their children’s future.

Mr Hills says he has found himself having to defend his choice to give to a project in Rwanda. “Anyone putting money into Rwanda might be accused of investing in a fault-line. There have been recent upheavals in Burundi, very much dictated by the old Tutsi-Hutu tensions which caused one of the cruellest genocides of the last century. Some Rwandans look at each other and wonder if it could happen again. But, mostly, things feel optimistic.” Significantly, Ms Uwantege is a Tutsi, but she has found her calling among the Hutu.

“Rwanda now has a stable government, and relatively low rates of corruption,” Mr Hills says. “But the poverty is still extreme. And poverty is also relative: Rwanda is beginning to move forward again, which makes those left behind particularly unfortunate and vulnerable. Personally, I’m not sure that an earth floor and a roof of branches is much more palatable just because your country isn’t among the bottom 20 of the World Bank table of poverty.”


ANOTHER challenge Ms Uwantege faces is to find adequate teaching staff. Her school of 160 pupils is set to grow, and it will no longer be enough to cover the alphabet, some basic literacy in Kinyarwanda (the official language of Rwanda), and a smattering of English. The standard of English teaching is a problem throughout the region, which matters in a country where the official alternative to Kinyarwanda is English. So one of Ms Uwantege’s recent initiatives is to produce a new textbook in both languages.

Other plans include cultivating a kitchen garden to provide a welcome alternative to porridge. But Ms Uwantege’s main ambition remains simple and unchanging: to make a difference to the life of even one child. “These children now come to a place which is perhaps the first really structured group they have encountered,” Mr Hills says. “It’s a place which invites them to come and learn for themselves: a place which respects them.”

For more information, visit www.faithfoundation.rw.

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