Midway into her two-year assignment as education director at an elementary school in Rwanda, Erica Robertson (ACIS ’08, M.S./EDCT ’09) decided to “re-enlist.”
Raising funds, taking stock
Robertson joined the Rafiki Foundation, which focuses on assisting African children, in late 2009. She moved the following May to Rwanda, where she leads an orphanage school in Nyamata. To raise funds for her next stint (all Rafiki missionaries raise their own support), she returned to America this past summer for a few weeks to speak about her experiences and needs with churches and other groups.
Robertson, who is from Appomattox, visited the church she attended as a student and, during a brief tour of Virginia Tech, marveled at all the changes on campus since she left. Her trip also allowed her to take stock of her work at the school and come up with new solutions to problems she encountered.
A language dilemma
One of her biggest challenges continues to be finding teachers who can speak English well enough to use it for instruction. She looks for the best English speakers among the applicants and trains them, a process that requires hiring the teachers many months before they start teaching.
“Since my return to Rwanda, we have started a daily read-aloud time — for all teachers to come together and read in English with each other and myself,” Robertson says. “We work on pronunciation, defining unknown words, and using inflexion in reading. Then, we discuss what we have read to keep teachers in the habit of engaging each other in intellectual conversation.”
The shortage of English-proficient educators, she notes, is a problem as well for other schools in Rwanda, where most people speak Kinyarwanda, the indigenous language, and a small minority speak French. Moreover, since the government’s move three years ago to English as the dominant official language, schools have had to implement the change, she adds, while ensuring that students retain knowledge of their native tongue and culture. Rafiki schools, she says, address the native language dilemma by encouraging students to speak it at home and teaching its proper use in specific classes.
“Love their new mamas”
In recent months, Robertson has helped the school move to “a beautiful building,” funded through donations; dealt with inconsistent water supplies; moved a struggling child from first grade back into kindergarten; and admitted two students who had been living with their mothers in prison. “When Claire and Aline came to the village, Aline had respiratory symptoms that often exist in the beginning stages of HIV,” Robertson recalls. “We took both girls to the clinic. Aline did have pneumonia, but that was her only illness. It was treated, and now she is happy and healthy. Both girls have made Rafiki their home and love their new mamas very much.”
Managing village finances
She also managed the finances of the “village” when its finance manager was away (Rafiki training villages include living and medical facilities, in addition to a school, for the orphan children). “My roles mostly consisted of paying our bills, getting the purchasing lists to the right people with the right funds, handling payroll, and keeping the books in order.”
Given her accounting background, Robertson says, “this was one of the easiest jobs that has been assigned to me and one I felt very comfortable with.” Still, she was happy to return to “putting my whole focus back on the school.”
New work, new responsibilities
One possible change in duties that excites her is the training of principals, from schools sponsored by partner churches, in Rafiki’s preprimary curriculum, if the curriculum is approved by the government. “We will offer training weeks to local headmasters to learn how to use our curriculum, which is prepared by volunteers in the U.S. with an African audience in mind, and to see it at work first-hand in our classrooms.”
Though being a trainer will mean taking on additional work, Robertson is enthusiastic about the prospect of helping partner churches teach English to their youngest students. “As our schools grow, we eventually want to offer training in all levels of our curriculum, which will go through senior secondary school.”
The larger picture
She notes that all teachers in Rafiki schools work to integrate a biblical worldview into their lessons to help students develop this awareness: “No matter what they are teaching, they always show students how the lesson fits into the larger picture of God, creation, man, moral order, and purpose. The thing that we are trying to protect our children from is the idea that our lives can somehow be compartmentalized, that our faith belongs at church and is separate from our work, our home, and our entertainment.”
Reflecting on her decision to extend her service in Rwanda, she says: “There is nothing very special about me compared to others, but for some reason, God has chosen to give me clarity in my calling. Ever since I made my initial decision to go on the field with Rafiki, I have had a great peace with that decision, and it has been confirmed many times, through those around me and situations that seemed impossible.”
Robertson, who is not yet fully funded for her second term, said fundraising for her initial term, for example, had been “a huge hurdle that God overcame in an unexplainable way — I have no idea where half of my funding came from.”
She believes that her work in Rwanda is unfinished. “So, until it is complete and the peace I have is gone, I will continue to recommit. I think I am incredibly blessed.”
Read the introductory story, “Erica Robertson: Corporate job couldn't satisfy her calling”