Sunday, March 13, 2011

Seattle women create environmentally sustainable school in Rwanda

By Alex Stuckey

Edited by Hiram Foster

Photo courtesy of

Feb. 25 marked the beginnings of new opportunities in science and technology for 85 Rwandan girls because of the realized dreams of two women more than 8,900 miles away.

Soozi McGill and Shal Foster, long-time running buddies from Seattle, Washington, created the Gashora Girls Academy, an environmentally sustainable, science and technology secondary boarding school built on Lake Milayi in Gashora, about an hour southeast of Kigali.

The academy is the first project of the pair’s startup organization, the Rwanda Girls Initiative, which works to provide secondary school education to girls in Rwanda, McGill said.

“We realized the power of educating girls, especially in developing countries that can have their own doctors, lawyers and nurses,” she said.

The academy

The academy focuses on training young women for careers in science and technology by having each student pick an area of concentration such as psychics, biology or agriculture, Head of School Peter Thorp said.

Unlike in the United States’ secondary education of grades ninth to 12th, children in Rwanda pick a subject to major in before secondary school and focus their learning around that area of concentration, Thorp said.

There are seven combinations of science curriculum students can take — physics, chemistry, biology, math, economics, geology and computer science, Thorp said. Students also take classes such as entrepreneurship and English, he added.

Although only 85 girls were enrolled this year, by 2013, the school will be at full capacity, with 270 girls, he said.

It costs the academy $4,000 per child per year to educate the girls, and families are expected to pay half of that. However, the amount a family pays is based on their ability to pay, he said.

The campus covers 26 acres of land and consists of three dormitory buildings, an administration building with a library, computer lab and two science classrooms with lab equipment, said Mike McCausland, the project’s construction manager.

On the campus, there are also two other buildings with three separate classrooms each, a dining facility, bathroom, faculty and caretaker house and a processing center and seedling house for agriculture, McCausland said.

Half of the 26 acres of land is dedicated to agriculture, where food can be grown to provide nutritious meals to the girls and, over the long term, help the school sustain itself, said Ralph Coolman, associate director of community collaborations at Washington State University.

“Eventually, the agriculture would generate 30 percent of the operating budget (of the academy),” Coolman said, adding that students will also use the land for classes.

In seven years, the organization plans to turn the school over to the Ministry of Education, and although Gashora has some of the driest land in the country, McGill said they are relying on agriculture to help the school sustain itself financial once the organization leaves.

“We can produce whatever we want, process and handle it and get it to Kigali to sell,” he said.

Environmentally Sustainable

To combat the arid land in the area, the organization created an irrigation system on the grounds, while partnering with MulvannyG2 Architecture, Coolman, McCausland and Eudes Kayumba, an architect at Studio Landmark.

“(The irrigation) will allow us to produce offseason crops…we could get three times or more for tomatoes than we could when everyone else has tomatoes,” Coolman said.

The grounds are also home to a marsh-based wastewater treatment system that uses native plants, where the water is either evaporated, consumed by the plants or dumped into the lake, McCausland said.

“The advantage is it is ecologically friendly,” McCausland said, “No electricity is used and (the site) will naturally cleanse itself.”

Kayumba said he assisted the organization pick a site that would be most conducive to this type of system because he knew the land and had worked for the Rwandan government previously.

“Their idea was to build a school so I brought my expertise,” Kayumba said.

The beginning

The two founders dreamed up the project during three-hour runs, and decided to dedicate their time to working on global projects that would help alleviate issues around the world, McGill said.

Using the country’s Vision 2020 proposal as a guide, the two focused their energy on creating better secondary education opportunities for teenage girls, McGill said.

The proposal calls for an increase in the number of females enrolled in secondary education, which would improve women’s decision-making skills and overall access to opportunities available to men.

“In order to achieve gender equality and equity, Rwanda will continuously update and adapt its laws on gender. It will support education for all, eradicate all forms of discrimination, fight against poverty and practice a positive discrimination policy in favour of women,” according to the proposal.

With this in mind, the two runners decided to raise money for the construction of the school through individual donations big and small, reaching out to several foundations including the Seattle International Foundation and an event they hosted in Seattle last march, McGill said.

About 300 people attended the event, which raised over $715,000, she said, adding that the organization has raised more than $4 million — enough to cover the $2.5 million cost of the construction of the academy.

In 2008, Foster and McGill began working with Rwanda Ministry of Education officials to zero in on a location for the school, McGill said, adding that they picked Gashora as the final location because it was the district most devastated by the genocide.

McGill added that they decided to build the school here because the government is building a new road through the village and there is a prison nearby.

“The prison is not too far away and gives the area so much negative connotation,” she said. “It would be nice for people of the area to feel proud of (the school).”

Through building the school, the organization has worked to bring the community and the academy together.

“The school is very much a part of the Africa village — it provides jobs and brings the community together,” Thorp said.

No comments: