If home is where the family heart is, William Hirtle is never far from his doorstep, even when he is volunteering half-way around the world in Kigali, Rwanda.
That’s because the Nova Scotia native is surrounded by family in the East African country. His wife Erica Corbett and mother-in-law Marit Quist-Corbett are there with him.
Both William and Marit are volunteering with Cuso International and working with the Rwandan Education Board on a new literacy initiative called ‘L3,’ and Erica joined William overseas where she is working as a maternal and neo-natal health expert
All three of them have noticed that family takes on a different meaning in Rwanda, one that brings the entire community together as one in the aftermath of the devastating genocide that happened in Rwanda nearly 20 years ago.
“There’s a real focus on rebuilding family and community, whether that’s the way we think about family like we do in Canada or a new structure of family based on community or shared interests or shared experiences,” says Erica.
“We live in a very, very family friendly neighbourhood, the community is very close. People say hi to each other, they hang out together. When you say hello to somebody you get a huge smile back,” says Marit.
Umuganda – bringing community together
Part of the reason that the community has a bond as strong as a family is a national initiative called Umuganda.
“Umuganda brings communities together in each area of Kigali and Rwanda on the last Saturday morning of every month to engage in community improvement activities,” explains Marit.
“It aims to bring people together and makes it possible to bring problems out in the open. It’s a place where people can speak freely about community issues.”
The homes and streets of Rwanda are not the only places where family and community play a huge part in people’s lives. Family also plays a large role in the classrooms of the country where children and adults are overcoming the obstacles that face them both.
Rwanda just became an officially English-speaking country and in a nation where many are used to speaking French or Kinyarwanda, learning a new language from scratch is a difficult task, filled with obstacles, especially for the older generation.
“Many parents and teachers are not fluent in English so you end up having adults not speaking English as well as their children or students,” explains William.
“With some parents being less fluent than their children it affects the power structures and family relationships,” says Marit.
“William and I hope that our work we will contribute in a small way to making it easier for parents to be involved in their child’s education.”
William is hoping that the impact the literacy initiative has in the classroom can spread to the homes of the students.
“The L3 project we are working with aims to have an impact on literacy. If it can help increase reading, writing and storytelling, even within families, within schools and within communities, that would be wonderful and that’s what we’re hoping it does.”
William and Marit are part of a program striving, among other things, to help families through education, but in a country where many children are without parents, the classroom also offers an opportunity to define family in another way.
“Because many children don’t have parents, schools have created substitute, little families in the classroom,” says Marit.
“So maybe the stronger child will be the parent for example. These groups are told to support each other and if someone in the family has troubles with homework or something they can ask their “brother” or “sister” for help.”
All in the family
William, Erica and Marit have seen the power of family and community to overcome obstacles in Rwanda on a daily basis so it is probably no coincidence that family is the force that brought them together to Kigali in the first place.
Erica’s father and Marit’s husband Bill Corbett was a Cuso volunteer in the 1960s and 1970s in Colombia, eventually reaching the position of Cuso coordinator in the country. It was in Colombia that Marit met Bill when she was working for UNICEF.
Bill’s involvement with Cuso had a deep impact on Erica growing up.
“My siblings and I grew up hearing about Cuso, hearing about the positions and the projects my dad had worked on. It seemed like everywhere we went travelling around the world we met our parent’s friends who had all been former Cuso volunteers,” says Erica.
“We grew up with that and I always knew I wanted to be involved with Cuso in some way.”
When Bill passed away in May 2010, Marit, Erica and William looked to Cuso International to find a new meaning in life.
“Following my dad’s death we were all sort of searching for some meaning for our lives and what we were going to do now,” says Erica.
“We each thought Cuso International was a good vehicle for finding meaning again in life. My husband and I had actually applied to Cuso as partners before my dad died and that had sort of been derailed when he got sick, we put that on hold. So it was sort of a logical step to take that up again.”
And Rwanda seemed like a logical destination for the three, tight-knit family members.
“I know for myself and for my wife and for Marit Rwanda has always been constantly in the back of our minds as Canadians,” says William, “because of familiarity with Romeo Dallaire’s story so it seemed like a logical choice for a placement. Placements opened up and through circumstance, fate brought us all here together in Kigali.”
And for William, Erica and Marit, having family close by makes all the difference when working, teaching and learning in a new country.
“I feel so lucky and so blessed that I have an accompanying partner and having my mother in-law here has also been wonderful,” says William.
“When you have people you know in the country, you have an instant support system to debrief with. That’s been so monumental, it’s indescribable.”
Story by Marc Cousineau