Most all the school-age children of Matara attend the elementary school just across the street from the village. This is really the first school experience for many of the children, as education has always been rough for Batwa people. These families lived so far from schools, more than walking distance, and so education was not a reality for many of them. Historically, they have been demeaned in classrooms, even by the teachers. No one expects them to succeed and no one invests in them. Typically the children are the minority and become the victims of much ridicule from other Hutu and Tutsi kids. Most drop out. So you can imagine the excitement and trepidation the families felt when presented with an elementary school just down the street that their children could attend. What would their experience be this time?
What has happened in the past 18 months at the school is a complete change of story, all the stereotypes being unmasked and undermined in the best sense. The kids of Matara would be walked to school by the mothers, always arriving on time for class and dressed in clean uniforms. They worked hard in class. They worked so well, in fact, that the teachers began commenting to each other about the smart Batwa students in their class. ‘My best math student is Batwa,’ one would note. ‘My strongest students in the class are all Batwa,’ another would add. ‘The best speller in my class is Batwa…’ another would say. They began to realize that all the things they were previously told about Batwa and their low intellectual capacity were lies. With their own eyes they saw the efforts and achievements of the Batwa students every day, and began to change their story. They began to recognize these students posses all the potential any other student possesses. What a revelation!
The teachers and principle were so impressed with the Batwa students of Matara. They arrived to class on time, well dressed, clean and ready to learn. They came with their homework assignments completed. They were well behaved in class and kind to other students. The administrators realized that the students did so well, in part, because their parents were so supportive and involved in their education. So they asked one of our women, Godis, to lead the Education Board (similar to the PTA in the US). They wanted her to help the other parents in the neighborhood learn how to support their kids and increase their effectiveness in school. They asked her to help teach the other parents better ways to discipline their children, so that behavior would improve in the classroom. They asked her to help the parents learn how to keep their kids clean and clothes mended. They asked her to show the other parents how to care for the children like the Batwa do, so that the kids will come to school with the same good attitude, readiness to learn and respect for others. Godis learned that they wanted more than help with school, but recruited her to help the parents learn new skills for better parenting overall.
Godis hosted her first meeting recently, and many parents turned out for this session. She indicated that people seemed very receptive to the ideas and suggestions she shared with them. She is very excited about this opportunity to offer guidance to others and contribute to her community. We know Godis to be a woman of great stature within the Batwa village, a natural leader and hard working lady. She will be such a great gift to the community at large in this new role as Education Board President, we are so proud of her!
It is another huge honor to have the local education administrator recognize the students of Matara and recruit one of the mothers to help lead the community of parents to better care for their children. It is a testimony to how the parents in Matara care for their kids and support them – to such a degree that they have been asked to lead the way for other parents in the neighborhood. Once again, they are being invited into local leadership, now in education. Once again, the story about Batwa is changing in Matara as neighbors see the skills and strengths of their Batwa neighbors.