IU in Rwanda

A decade of global change and community partnership

For the past decade, the IU program has partnered with a community in Rwanda to provide books, literacy training and more.

One by one the students made their way up the rocky, dirt road, boys in khaki shirts and shorts, girls in blue skirts and sweaters.

It was summer break at Kabwende Primary School, a school in rural Kinigi, Rwanda, that serves about 1,800 students in Grades 1 through 6. But students eagerly made their way to the one-level brick buildings to attend the annual summer camp held by Books and Beyond, an Indiana University program in the College of Arts and Sciences that has spent the past 10 years providing books, and so much more, to Kabwende students and teachers.

"Books and Beyond started with the very simple idea of providing reading materials to the children of Kabwende Primary School," said Vera Marinova, associate director of IU's Global Living-Learning Community (former Global Village LLC) and director of the Books and Beyond program. "Ten years later, we are still focusing on literacy but more importantly, empowerment through education. It is always a thrill to see how excited the students of Kabwende are to be a part of the program and the hard work and dedication IU students pour into the project each year."

Description of the following video:

[Words appear: Indiana University presents]


[Video: Several young children in Rwanda hold books while waving and smiling to the camera.]


[Video: An Indiana University student hands out books to a large group of young children in Rwanda.]


[Video: A group of young children in Rwanda smile while looking at new books that were recently given to them.]


[Video: Vera Marinova, the Books and Beyond program director, appears on camera.]


Marinova speaks: The Books and Beyond Program is a service-learning project created at Indiana University. It is entirely student led. We have students from almost every unit at the university, working together on a project that seeks to address the needs of underprivileged communities in Rwanda.


[Video: An Indiana University student leads a class activity outside. She and the students are dancing.]


[Video: A teacher leads a class. The students are looking at him and listening intently.]


[Video: Three Rwandan students are working together on a writing assignment in a classroom. One student is holding a pen and writing on a piece of paper at a desk.]


[Video: A close-up of a Rwandan student dancing in class.]


[Video: An Indiana University student is helping a Rwandan student with his homework. She bends down to be closer to him. When she is done helping him, she stands back up and goes to help another student.]


[Video: A close-up of a Rwandan student sitting at his desk, reading an assignment.]


Marinova speaks: With the mentorship of Indiana University students, children participate in a variety of workshops, writing sessions and informational sessions, and they learn how to author a story, and then the stories are published.


[Video: A panning shot of a library. Dozens of books are on the shelves.]


Marinova speaks: We're in our 10th year this year, and we have created and published over 20,000 books so far.


[Video: Courtney Vaughn, an Indiana University senior, appears on camera.]


Vaughn speaks: I was a readers and theater teacher at Kabwende Primary School, so I taught kids English through acting out a story that was written by American kids.


[Video: Vaughn reads aloud to her class in Rwanda.]


[Video: A close-up of a Rwandan student. He is sitting at his desk, holding a piece of paper and reading out loud.]


[Video: Vaughn appears on camera.]


Vaughn speaks: My favorite memory is probably the book distribution. It didn't hit me until then that like, those kids, have so little and yet they cherish so much. They find the beauty and happiness in every little thing, so that's something that I'll cherish forever. I'll never forget that moment.


[Video: Vaughn gives books to a large group of Kabwende students.]


[Video: Several Rwandan students hold books while waving and smiling to the camera.]


[Video: A Rwandan baby sits on a woman’s lap. The baby looks into the camera, while the woman smiles at him.]


[Video: An Indiana University student and his students in Rwanda dance together in a circle while holding hands as a group.]


[Video: Jesse Jones, an Indiana University senior, appears on camera.]


Jones speaks: I would say my favorite part of this experience has been interacting with the children at Kabwende.


[Video: Jones leads a class and points at the chalkboard.]


[Video: A Rwandan student is working on a writing assignment in a classroom. He is holding a pen and writing on a piece of paper at a desk.]


[Video: Jones and two students are writing on a chalkboard.]


[Video: Jones dances in a circle with his students outside.]


Jones speaks: The students here have shown me the importance of education. It really made me appreciate my opportunities that I have to be a student at Indiana University.


[Video: A large group of young Rwandan students walk together outside, toward their school.]


[Video: An Indiana University student leads a class in Rwanda. She points to the chalkboard.]


[Video: A Rwandan student is working on a writing assignment in a classroom. He is holding a pen and writing on a piece of paper at a desk.]


[Video: An Indiana University faculty member puts a pair of glasses on a Rwandan girl.]


[Video: An Indiana University faculty member performs an eye exam on a young Rwandan boy. The boy is wearing glasses.]


[Video: A panning shot of a large bookcase filled with books as someone places a book on the shelf.]


[Video: Children playing outside at the school’s playground.]


[Video: An Indiana University faculty member helps a young Rwandan man use his new prosthetic arm.]


Marinova speaks: For several years, we've been trying to expand the program to address the needs of the community. In partnerships and collaborations with different students at Indiana University, we have now created the first library at Kabwende Primary School, we built two playgrounds at each school, we have a 3D prosthetic arms project.


[Video: An Indiana University faculty member writes on the chalkboard. She turns around to her class and points at what she wrote on the board.]


[Video: An Indiana University student hangs pieces of paper on the chalkboard. The pieces of paper have drawings and phrases written on them.]


[Video: An Indiana University student teaches and leads a class in Rwanda. She is interacting with her students.]


[Video: An Indiana University student leads his class in an activity outside. They are sitting together in a group on the grass.]


[Video: A teacher helps two students with an assignment. The three of them are looking at a writing assignment on the students’ desk.


[Video: A large group, including many young Rwandan students and several Indiana University students, are sitting together on the grass with their arms around each other, swaying back and forth.]


Marinova speaks: The one thing that I always strive towards is to create opportunities that allow people from all walks of life, whether you are faculty, staff, student, to be able to work together. Together working, we can empower.


[Video: Vaughn reads aloud to her class in Rwanda.]


[Video: Students in a classroom, all sitting at their desks, working on a writing assignment.]


[Video: Vaughn and other Books and Beyond participants pose for a group photo outside.]


[Video: Vaughn appears on camera.]


Vaughn speaks: I came to Rwanda thinking that I would just be teaching and then leave. But today, at the end of the celebration, I noticed that those kids have instilled so much in me, that I'm going to take home, and I did the exact same for them.


[Video: Vaughn helps lead a school play outside. She has her back to the camera and is holding a microphone, while her students act out the play in front of an audience.]


[Video: Close-up scenes of the Rwandan students acting out a play. The children are holding microphones and reading off pieces of paper.]


[Video: Vaughn interacts with a large group of children at the Books and Beyond book distribution.]


Vaughn speaks: And like seeing them act out the play, it just was like, wow, you guys really made me realize that, like, I can have so much effect on one person, and I'm going to go home with a new mindset and a new outlook on life.



[Screen goes to black]


[IU trident appears]

[Words appear: Indiana University]

[Words appear: Fulfilling the promise]

[Words appear: iu.edu]











A chance encounter

It was 2005 when IU alumna Nancy Uslan traveled to Rwanda with animal advocate Jack Hanna for a documentary on the country's endangered mountain gorillas.

While there, Uslan met 11-year-old David, who wanted to improve his English skills and asked the American to send him a dictionary. Uslan found out the young boy was a student at Kabwende Primary School, across the street from the main offices of the gorilla treks.

A relationship with the school formed, and Uslan quickly realized that none of the school children had books but were learning mainly through a "chalk and talk" method. Teachers were also mandated to teach in English, a language that at the time was foreign to the them as well.

Uslan came back to the States and turned to her alma mater to create a program that would not only provide high-quality books to Kabwende Primary School but also provide a cultural exchange between U.S. elementary-school students and Rwandan students.

"After traveling to Rwanda, I fell in love with the people and ultimately the country," Uslan said. "I knew if we could provide a book to every student that not only would we empower that individual student, but that child would take that book home and share it with their siblings, their parents and their community. So, one book is like throwing a pebble into a pond."

Nancy Uslan’s vision would become Books and Beyond.

For the past 10 years, Books and Beyond has delivered 20,000 volumes of "The World Is Our Home," a book of stories co-authored and illustrated by fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students in both Rwanda and Bloomington, Indiana. The books are printed in Rwanda -- stories are both in English and Kinyarwanda -- and delivered to Kabwende students during a three-week camp that focuses on literary skills, reading, writing and English conversation skills. Each year, teachers at Kabwende also undergo pedagogical, English and librarian training.

The books are also delivered to the students in Bloomington, who not only become published authors like their counterparts in Rwanda but experience a cultural exchange through stories written for and by them. 

"I think that what makes Books and Beyond not only unique, but truly successful, is that it manages to bridge the differences between all of its stakeholders and allows them to work together towards a common goal: empowerment through education," Marinova said. "It brings together a multitude of IU academic units, faculty, staff, students, Rwandan teachers and students, Rwandan governmental agencies and community members in both Rwanda and the States. It is only when we work together and we support one another in that endeavor that we see the kind of true and lasting change that I believe Books and Beyond delivers."

A student-led project

When it comes to Books and Beyond, the project is for, and led by, students primary-school children in both Rwanda and the U.S. who are creating the books, and the Indiana University students who raise money for the program and spend a year working on the anthology. Some of the IU students also spend a month in Rwanda conducting camp and teacher training.

Jesse Jones, a senior in health care management and policy in IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, was one of nine students who traveled to Rwanda this year. Every morning Jones and his fellow students would rise early and take a bus to Kabwende, where they partnered with local teachers to teach literary skills to the students.

Teaching English through kinesthetics, Jones was so impressed by the enthusiasm of the students and their eagerness to learn that he wants to pursue a career in teaching.

"The students here have shown me the importance of education," Jones said. "I took my education for granted, but seeing how much the students understand the value of education, that turned a light on in my head. If these little kids can understand it, why don’t I appreciate education as much as I should? It just really made me appreciate the opportunity I have to be a student at IU."

Courtney Vaughn, a psychology and Spanish major, spent her days as a readers theater teacher, teaching a play written by Bloomington students that the Kabwende students acted out during an end-of-year celebration.

Like Jones, Vaughn was also deeply moved by the students' appreciation for education, particularly during the book distribution, where the students' excitement was palpable. 

"It didn’t hit me until then that those kids have so little yet they cherish so much," Vaughn said. "They find the beauty and happiness in every little thing. The simplest things put smiles on their faces, like a pen, a book or a high five. That is something I will cherish forever; I will never forget that moment."

Many of the IU students who traveled to Rwanda were moved by the hospitality and warmth they received, not only from the students and teachers at Kabwende but from everyone they met. Having a month to truly immerse themselves in the Rwandan culture enriched the students' experiences beyond their expectations, Vaughn said.

"I came here thinking I would just be teaching and then leave," she said. "But after the celebration, I noticed those kids have instilled so much in me that I am going to take home, and I did the exact thing for them. Seeing them act out the play, they made me realize I can have an effect on someone. I learned a lot about myself and what I want to do when I graduate. I feel like I have learned a lot, and I’m going to go home with a new mindset and outlook and the opportunities I’ve been given."

Going beyond

Although books are still the primary focus of Books and Beyond, partnerships with other IU faculty and schools have allowed the program to expand. The program now offers a three-week, literacy-based camp for Kabwende students and teacher training.  

Graduate students and faculty from IU libraries helped create Kabwende's first library and continue to fill it with books. Don Lyon of the IU School of Optometry, Nancy Uslan and Eye Care 4 Kids traveled to the school to conduct advanced eye screenings, and provide glasses, for Kabwende students and teachers. This summer, the group screened over 300 students and teachers.

Jon Racek, senior lecturer in IU's School of Art, Architecture + Design and founder of Play360, built Kabwende's first playground two years ago. He returned this summer to build another playground at the nearby Nyabitsinde Primary School. He also spent a year building prosthetic arms for area children and donated a 3D printer to an area vocational school, Apicur, where he is helping them create curriculum for a 3D printing class.

Marinova also hopes to expand Books and Beyond into Bulgaria in 2020, where the program will focus on serving underprivileged, Roma minority communities.

"One of the exciting things for me is to see how this program has morphed into other projects," Uslan said. "It started off simply as a book delivery, literacy program. That was the 'books' part of Books and Beyond. Now there's the 'beyond' part, and to bring in the other departments and schools from IU is extraordinarily exciting. To have professors who are involved with the program bring to the table their expertise, not only as faculty members but what they do in their down time, is thrilling. It's something that, over the 10 years, I could never have imagined."