Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Rwanda

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For the last week of our Educational Summer Vacation, the kids chose to "visit" Rwanda. Rwanda is a country in central Africa about the size of Maryland (although with twice as many people.) Here's what we learned about it!


The older three kids were staying with their grandparents until Monday, so we started our week on Tuesday.

I put on a CD from the library called Rhythm of Life: Music of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda while the kids found Rwanda on the giant wall map and drew the flag.

(The music wasn't in English but my daughter said it sounded like "In the cow zone, we act like meteorologists! In the cow zone, we think like meteorologists" I don't mean to brag, but mishearing song lyrics is kind of a special talent in my family.)

The kids pulled out the passport pages I made for them and wrote down everything the map told them about Rwanda: what continent it's on, what countries it borders, and so on.

Download the Passport Pages

I wish I'd had the foresight to make each kid a bound book with a ton of these pages inside, and keep them from year to year. I just didn't know when I started this that it would be an annual thing, and only hindsight is 20/20.

I read interesting parts of We Visit Rwanda out loud and then we watched Rwanda from the Countries Around the World DVD series. I love that series, and we have watched so many of them during our Educational Summer Vacations.

Rwanda basically sits on the equator and I wanted to visualize why that makes it so they never have cold weather there.

So we read The Equator by Todd Bluthenthal and then did a little demonstration. We took out our old beach ball with a world map printed on it, put stickers on our location and on Rwanda, and then we took turns making the ball orbit around the sun (a.k.a: a lamp with the shade removed.)

I pointed out how sometimes our home in New England is tipped away from the sun, but Rwanda never is so it always stays warm there.

I wish I'd taken a picture of this demonstration, especially since we lost the ball when we went to the beach later in the week.

Yes, we can just buy another one, but it won't be quite the same. Our beach ball was so ancient it still had the U.S.S.R. on it. I'm a little sad about it, actually. It was kind of an antique.


We started out by watching Rwanda: The Royal Tour. This DVD is part of a series with a really interesting concept: a journalist visits a country and gets a personal tour from the head of state.

It was really interesting to see Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, although my 15-year-old and I later agreed we were getting a distinct propaganda-like vibe.

The number of votes it said he got was inflated, and the areas of Rwanda we were allowed to see on the video were surprisingly nice (especially since the other video showed plenty of dirt roads and corrugated tin roofs.)

Rwanda's official languages are Swahili, French, English, and Kinyarwanda. Kinyarwanda is the most commonly spoken.

Kinyarwanda is a tonal language like we learned about earlier this month with Vietnamese, but unlike in Vietnamese the tones aren't indicated in writing.

It's kind of hard to find any "how to speak Kinyarwanda" tutorials, but we did our best with this YouTube video. It wasn't the most exciting thing we've ever watched, but at least the kids got to hear what Kinyarwanda sounds like.

Then we learned about imigongo, a form of art unique to Rwanda. It's incredibly beautiful (see video below:)

Did I mention it's made of cow dung? My kids loved that little plot twist.

We made our own version of imigongo, using 10"x10" squares of cardboard and Crayola air dry clay. This 5-lb bucket was just the right amount for all 6 kids to make one.

One daughter added a lovely gash to our dining room table with a box cutter while cutting out her cardboard, but luckily we haven't had nice things for 10 years so it was fine. We'll get a new table when the last one graduates.

We left our faux imigongo to cure in the basement for 72 hours (as per the instructions on the tub of clay) before painting them. I have no idea if we would have to do the same thing if we used real cow dung, but you know, I'm actually okay with not  knowing.

For dinner I wanted to try a recipe from Rwanda. I made something similar to this when we were doing South Africa, and nobody really wanted to repeat the experience.

So we tried isombe, using kale instead of cassava leaves.

As I was making it, throwing green thing after green thing into the pot, I was thinking, "this is going to be so disgusting. Nobody is going to eat this. I don't even want to eat this." But do you know what? It was actually not bad.

Even though it wasn't the most amazing meal ever, this contained so many healthy vegetables I think I'll make it again sometime.


Mountain gorillas are considered "critically endangered," and they only live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda.

We read Dian Fossey: Friend to Africa's Gorillas. You may not recognize Dian Fossey's name, but I bet you recognize Gorillas in the Mist, which was the title of her book that was made into a movie in the '90s.

I never saw the movie, and I probably don't want to. I got all choked up reading about how Dian Fossey didn't really "get" people but she loved her gorillas and when she was killed (probably by a poacher who didn't like her advocating for the mountain gorilla so much,) she was buried next to her favorite one, Digit. Seeing that on the big screen might break me.

Dian Fossey believed the gorillas needed to accept her as one of them before they acted naturally, so she often imitated them to show she was just "one of the guys." The kids thought that was hilarious so I asked, "Well, would you act like yourselves if there was some weirdo in the corner watching you and taking notes?"

My 13-year-old hesitated and said, "You basically do that for your blog, so..."

Good point. I do feel like I'm observing wildlife every day, now that she points it out.

Based on the first few minutes, I thought Mountain Gorilla (a National Geographic IMAX DVD,) I thought it was going to be a real snooze-fest. But once the people stopped talking and it was just footage of the gorillas doing their thing, it was so fascinating.

Whenever I see gorillas at the zoo, they're just sitting there doing absolutely nothing. I'm sure these gorillas did a lot of that, but they edited those parts out and it was 40 minutes of the gorillas eating, playing, climbing, and fighting. We were all thoroughly entertained and by the end, my 5-year-old was crawling around on his knuckles saying he was a gorilla. It was awesome.

I told the kids that for the next 20 minutes, we were all going to be like Dian Fossey. I thought it would be easy because our yard is perpetually overrun with squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits. But as Murphy's Law would have it, there wasn't a single one outside that day.

It took a little extra looking, but we found something alive eventually.

The 5-year-old and I studied a dragonfly.

The 15-year-old saw some catbirds having a conversation in the trees.

The 13-year-old watched some ants digging a new tunnel.

The 11-year-old found a slug in the backyard.

The closest I've ever been to a slug. Also the closest I ever want to be to a slug.

The 7-year-old observed a spider and even took notes on a very official-looking clipboard.

I did tell her that sketching your animal is an important part of wildlife observation.

Even though I was disappointed most of the animals we saw were bugs, it was still really fun. I liked going outside and wandering around with no real objective except to see what we could see.

Maybe we'll make "wildlife hour" a weekly thing around here.


Since our imigongo art was dry now, it was ready to paint.

They curled up a little and the clay cracked a little while drying, but we were still able to paint and I was impressed with how the finished pieces turned out!

And then, onto a more weighty topic: the Rwandan Genocide. 

I knew it happened in 1994, but I didn't know very many details about it (I was 12 then, so that might explain it.)

I did some research on my own before this week started (The Rwandan Genocide by Don Nardo and this article are good places to start) and let me tell you, it's horrific. Even compared to other genocides.

Because I have young kids, I naturally started at the most logical and age-appropriate place: Dr. Seuss. I don't know how he would feel about me using The Sneetches to teach my kids about genocide, but that's what we did.

Sorry, Dr. Seuss.

After we read the book, I asked each kid to write his or her name on a piece of paper, then surround it with all the labels that describe them: girl, violinist, American, Latter-day Saint, short, 4th grader, etc.

We talked about how everyone has a full page just like ours, so it doesn't make sense to dislike someone based on just one label, because we are all lots of things.

I recommend this BBC video because it explained the basics of the Rwandan Genocide without being too graphic (although I did skip ahead a few seconds at 2:55, because I wasn't up for explaining what 'sex slaves' means to my 7-year-old.) And then I gave the kids 11 and up a children's novel about the genocide called Broken Memory by Elisabeth Combres to read on their own time.

After the younger kids went to bed, Phillip and I stayed up with the 15-year-old to watch Hotel Rwanda. I'd never seen it and just assumed the movie was rated R, because genocide, but it was actually PG-13.

It was super-intense. After the last credits rolled we all just sat there, not really able to say anything, until finally I broke the silence by telling Phillip, "And that's why the little kids and I read The Sneetches."


The traditional show dance done by Rwandan women is called umushagiriro, which literally means "dancing and swaying elegantly in the trunk and arms while moving slowly."

After watching this video of the umushagiriro, my daughter said, "We could have just read the translation of the name instead of watching this." She was pretty much right.

Intore is the dance of the heroes, traditionally done by male warriors for the king after a victory in battle.

But today it's done for tourists and at special ceremonies like weddings and baby namings. We learned about the history of the intore dance and then watched this video:

Ingoma, drumming, is also an important part of Rwandan culture. It used to be that only men could play, but now women can, too.

We read this article about the Rwandan drum and how it's traditionally made, and then made some drums using the method here, which only requires some kind of tube shape, packing tape and some chopsticks.

My husband was at Home Depot about three times today getting supplies to sand and paint our deck, so I had him pick up a cement pouring tube and I cut it into three pieces with a hacksaw.

I took the child out first.

My kids had so much fun with these drums once they were done, and other than the part with the hacksaw, they didn't take long at all to make.

After they had made the drums, the kids didn't want to go to bed, but I bribed them into sitting down for a Rwandan folk tale called Sebgugugu the Glutton.

They weren't entirely impressed, but it certainly wasn't weirder than anything from the Brothers Grimm.

It's kind of fun to take a country like Rwanda that I really knew nothing about and spend a week talking about it. The kids learn so much, and so do I! That concludes our Educational Summer Vacation for this year, and we'll be back at it in 2020. Maybe I'll even get around to making those big passport books we can use from year to year. Maybe.

Learning about Rwanda is fun and hands-on with these free crafts, ideas, and activities for kids! #rwanda #africa #educational #kids
Building the perfect Africa lesson plan for your students? Are you doing an around-the-world unit in your K-12 social studies classroom? Try these free and fun Rwanda-themed activities, crafts, books, and free printables for teachers and educators! #rwanda #africa #lessonplan #geography #socialstudies
This Rwanda unit study is packed with activities, crafts, book lists, and recipes for kids of all ages! Make learning about Africa in your homeschool even more fun with these free ideas and resources. #rwanda #africa #homeschool
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Jenny in WV said...

I was surprised to see this post last weekend! School began here two weeks ago, so I assumed fake travel season was over.
I remember learning a little about Rwanda in school in the mid-90s. We probably read about it in the Weekly Reader, so I could tell you Hutu and Tutsi, but not much else.
The art project looks really fun and turned out pretty cool!

Jenny Evans said...

Jenny: Our school year is weird. We don't start until after Labor day, we get the Jewish plus the Christian holidays off, and we also have a random week off in February in addition to spring break in April. So we're in school until mid- to late-June. I don't want to talk about it.

Anonymous said...

I love your summer tradition! What age do your kids really start to participate and learn from this and go beyond thinking it's just a bunch of fun, messy crafts and activities? I want to do something similar in our homeschool but my kids are still really young.

Jenny Evans said...

My girls were 8 and 6 when I started this, I think. Six or seven is about the age when I think they really participate fully and get something out of it.

This year my 5-year-old did a lot of the crafts and get super-interested in the countries on the map, so I think next year he'll be ready to jump in.