"To build a culture of books starting with the very youngest readers." That wish caught my ear when I chatted with a staff member from a tiny publisher in Kigali, Rwanda.
"To save the stories we once told around a cooking fire, so all the grandchildren can hear them in the future." A Tanzanian friend shared his fear that the digital world would erase his traditional stories.
"To spread stories of courage, forgiveness and reconciliation to the next generation," A peacemaker from Rwanda imagined the outcome of a workshop dedicated to writing for children.
At the time of those conversations, I was facilitating a writing project for American kids visiting Rwanda. My heart was already sensitive to the need for the development of literature for children in my former home, Tanzania, and now I was hearing about it from Rwandans.
The American visitors had been students in my seventh-grade Gifted Seminar a few years before, when one of them had instigated her own book project. Our school offered students tiny micro-loans to develop small businesses, in order to donate any profits to causes they cared about. I had told my gifted kids many stories about my visit to a girls' secondary school in Rwanda that educated orphans, so Alison and a friend decided to write a book about it. They collected the Rwandan girls' stories by email, edited and designed the book, and published it at Staples, batch by batch. My middle schoolers astonished everyone, (including me!) by raising over $9,000 for the Institute of Women's Excellence (IWE), as they sold the book and spoke at bookstores, churches, and local service organizations. On our trip, my American students spent four days with the girls of IWE, orphans of genocide and AIDS, personally interviewing them to update their book, "Inzozi: Dreams of the Future". We also had the satisfaction of laying our hands on the sun-warmed bricks of the dormitory that their book profits had funded.
Another project grew out of that visit, after several of IWE's girls shyly asked if we had any books to share. Someone had left a copy of Like Water for Elephants at the school after a visit, and the girls had passed it around with great interest. When we returned to the United States, we decided to send them a few boxes of books. This project mushroomed beyond our wildest dreams: in February, 50 volunteers catalogued and packed over 5,000 donated books to send to IWE. These girls who had no hope of an education before enrolling at the school will now have access to one of only two English-language libraries in Rwanda. We were amazed as we watched the project explode: an anonymous donor covered shipping expenses, and a gala dinner produced over $12,000 to build a library room at the school!
The seed of the Rwanda Writes Workshop was also planted on that trip. I had the honor of interviewing a friend, Emmanuel, who shared with me his story of having been a slave to Congolese rebel groups for eight years. My personal project goal is to finish interviewing Emmanuel and to publish a picture book or middle grade novel about his amazing experiences.
The workshop idea lost momentum when I didn't hear from my Rwandan friends for quite some time. I figured that perhaps this wasn't the year for a writers' workshop, or that other events had overshadowed the project. But a month ago, I received an enthusiastic email from the new leader of ALARM, the peace and reconciliation group that started the IWE school, inviting me to hold the workshop this summer, in July of 2013. Within a week, I had assembled a great team of four writer/trainers. Our workshop goal is to see at least ten books produced by workshop participants. In the long run, we hope that this workshop will inspire the production of children's literature in the future.
With $6,000, I can give a good chunk of airfare to my presenters, but half of the money we raise will go to transportation, food, lodging, and supplies for the workshop participants. I anticipate they will be teachers, youth workers, artists, writers and publishers from East Africa, primarily Rwanda and Burundi. Some of the money will be spent on transporting a collection of "mentor books:" picture and chapter books that can be used to model good writing and illustration on similar themes of forgiveness and conflict resolution. When the first book is published, I will send a copy to my Kickstarter donors, to thank them with very tangible evidence of our workshop results. If we are able to raise more than $6,000? We will be able to bring more writers and artists from greater distances to attend the workshop.
The Rwanda Writes project will produce stories that carry a message of peace and forgiveness, forge long-lasting writer-to-writer connections, and inspire kids to become readers for life.
Risks and challenges
Who will attend? A Rwandan peace and reconciliation group, ALARM, will organize on the Rwandan side, and is already finding just the right participants for the RWANDA WRITES workshop.
How will we communicate cross-culturally about these powerful ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the needs of various age groups in different cultures? Having lived and worked in East Africa for ten years, I believe that, together with our host group, ALARM, we can bridge any gaps that may develop.
Who will publish our books? We plan to invite local publishers to our workshop, and to make more personal connections with them while we are in Rwanda. I also have professional and personal connections with a publisher in Tanzania.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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