Saint Kizito School Graduate Launches Letter Exchange Program
by Trish Harris
RESPECT International's letter exchange program is an exciting way for students to create global connections to other students who, in spite of the many miles between them, are still children learning to thrive and grow in a world with fewer barriers to understanding.
Students from a school in Kenya, the Saint Kizito Socio-Cultural Center located in Kabiria, one of the suburbs of Nairobi, Kenya, are writing letters as part of the exchange program. The Center is oriented to the French-speaking children of the Great Lakes Region of central Africa.
It was opened in 1996 following a movement of refugees from the Great Lakes countries (Rwanda, Burundi, and the Republic Democratic Congo) to Kenya.
When they first arrived in the country, students served by the Center had difficulties integrating in the Kenyan schools: language, poverty, and trauma led their parents to seek alternatives to existing schools.
The Center, whose motto is super omnia caritas (Love Before All), manages the Saint Kizito School Kabiria under the patronage of the Sacred Heart Parish of Degoretti. Students at this school have gone on to become self-supporting, and almost half the graduates have continued their studies at universities worldwide.
A graduate of the Saint Kizitio School, Jean Clement Ishimwe, has organized the RESPECT letter exchange program for the Saint Kizito Socio-Cultural Center. Jean Clement is from Rwanda, a former refugee of war from 1994 "till now".
He explains "till now" because, even though "I now have legal documents from Rwanda, I still can't live there as I wish. All my family members are refugees – my parents still live in refugee camps – and the reasons that made us leave our country are still existing."
He took time from his busy exam and work schedule (he is currently a university student in the United States as a member of an international religious order) to share information about the school, the program, and the importance of letter writing.
In the 2007-2008 academic year, Saint Kizito Center school had 235 students: 163 from primary school and 72 from secondary school.
The school provides formal education at both primary and secondary levels. In the primary level, students study religion, mathematics, French, English, Swahili, sciences, music, physical education, geography, history, and practical activities.
The secondary level provides mathematics, English, French, Swahili, religious studies, chemistry, physics, biology, geography, history, computer sciences, music, physical activities, and civics.
They also have extracurricular activities such as participating in youth movements (Boy Scouts being the main organization), singing and dancing groups, and prayer groups.
The Saint Kizito schoolchildren range from 7 to 21 years old. This is the normal range; however, due to some students who start their education a bit late because of different circumstances such as poverty, or living in war areas without school, some students are over that age range.
Jean Clement's connection with the school is unique. He is a graduate reaching back to support his alma mater. He graduated from Saint Kizito school in 2002 after completing his secondary education. He actually joined this school from its inception and has retained ties to the school.
When he was still a student there, he was in charge of youth activities. As youth activities leader, he coordinated local projects which provided activities for students outside of their school periods. This is his first partnership with the school post graduation.
Jean Clement says he remembers that schoolchildren learnt letter writing in their French and English classes when he was in school there. However, it was never an activity that they did as a project; rather, it was a class activity. This is still the same now.
Corresponding with students from other continents will be another project that these students will appreciate, not only by sharing their experiences, but also by enhancing their writing skills.
Jean Clement started the letter exchange program with great optimism that the letters will be welcomed. However, he understands that the responses to the letters will depend primarily on who receives them.
The Saint Kizito students have experiences that many people will want to hear. Their stories not only provides facts on how they live and cope with their daily challenges as refugees, but also openness and an invitation to the world to contribute in building a peaceful place where there are no borders.
He writes: "I always refer to myself when I am saying this: my experience as a refugee opened for me doors to discovering and appreciating others. I always act as not belonging to my country, but to the world. It is a process that grows step by step."
It is this sense of openness and purpose that led him to launch this campaign with RESPECT International.
But why letters, and why letters in 2009? In a world that seems to have turned away from communication practices beyond email, IM, or the cellphone, letter writing can seem an almost nostalgic practice.
What do students gain by exchanging letters that they might not gain via other forms or modes of communication? Jean Clement says that he, too, is "also becoming trapped in this tech world of mail, IM and cellphone. I used to write letters more often than I do today. And now that most of my friends in Africa have access to the internet, I even don't feel of writing a letter to them. However, to me, this is artificial."
He goes on to stress the importance of personal connection through writing, explaining that "it is easy to copy and paste a message that is well worded, but it still doesn't say something about you. With this technology, we are turning away from expressing our really personal feelings that are expressed in letters to common feelings that are found everywhere on the net.
"Sometimes it is psychological. When I receive a letter written by hand I feel a direct contact with the person who wrote it. Writing letters convey not only the message itself, but the whole personality is involved: from the handwriting to the signature. Letters bring people together without an intermediary of a device," he adds.
The handwritten letters from the students of Saint Kizito are ready for your response; the students gain technical and expressive writing experience as they compose the letters, but it is the response of other school children that creates a real dialogue.
RESPECT wishes to thank Jean Clement for taking the time to launch this project with Saint Kizito School Kabiria and to share the information with the rest of the RESPECT community.