Where some cultures might write “thank you” notes in response to a gift, and that is considered a well-known genre for those communities, Rwandans would instead invite visitors into their homes to appreciate and celebrate one another through speeches. This verbal culture drives much of the interactions among students and spaces built at Rwandan institutions. Recent graduate, Mary Adeline Imanirakiza, identifies that both the verbal culture as well as the strong emphasis on math and science often limits the focus on writing to extracurricular work like clubs. Further, she argues that “while there is still a value to the verbal culture– as young people benefit from learning from elders in this manner, where stories and proverbs are passed from one generation to another– many students resist this in hopes of developing their writing.”
In 2019, Margaret Bugingo, passionate educator and aspiring language learner, founded the IPRC-Huye English Language Center as a component of her Fulbright work in Rwanda to support those English Language Learners who wished to further develop their writing. Based in a more rural city in Rwanda, once the main “university city” in the country, IPRC-Huye now houses the first documented writing center in Rwanda. In Huye, English knowledge, particularly writing knowledge, is still under development, especially due to the 2008 shift from French to English instruction. This shift played an integral role in the struggles ELLs still face, as teachers who were previously working in French had to change the language of instruction so quickly. Initially, the focus of the center was to receive all levels of writing learners– as Bugingo found that writing was where Rwandan learners would benefit– but quickly evolved into a space for both writing and speaking development to take place, as this desire for verbal interaction and respect for the cultural tradition was paramount.
The English Language Center was built under the heading of the Department of English. Initially, the head of the English Department indicated he was “a bit unsure of the idea at first, as writing centers were not known in Rwanda, but once the center was built [he] saw it was very effective” (Erneste). Consultants come from all departments at the university (veterinary, engineering, IT, etc.) and range from year-one to year-three level students. To become a part of the center, consultants must submit an application that includes a sample of their writing and indicates why they desire to be involved. Then, they complete interviews with the director and veteran members of the staff. Writing consultants selected to work in the center are chosen based on applications and interviews that reflect their commitment to helping others, as well as their strong writing and speaking skills. In 2021, one consultant, Karemera Arbogaste, spoke to this commitment when he shared “I will try my best to make sure that our institution is going to get better with all I can contribute, using all of the benefits I received from the center.”
The Center was initially developed using U.S. Writing Center practices, including a WC course based in rhetorical theory, writing center theory, and peer and director feedback, integrating passages from Naming What We Know, The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, and The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Passages from “Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work” and “All Writers Have More to Learn” shaped the way the consultants understood writing and consultant work, helping them to value the writers’ ownership of texts as well as the difficulties we all face when writing. While these theories were paramount to building the center, it was also essential to allow community culture to drive the focus of the space. For example, in January of 2020, a student of IPRC-Huye arrived in the center with no knowledge of the English language but a desire to learn as much as possible. So, the center decided to support him as he needed, incorporating both Kinyarwanda (the country’s primary language) and English into the space. The decision to use both languages was not an easy one. Like many other countries and programs, ELL conversations in Rwanda often pushed back on integration of Kinyarwanda in the classroom; some programs were so intense that university students would get “demerits” for speaking a language other than English, and primary school students would kneel for hours in punishment. Other students were responsible for documenting and reporting these rulebreakers. Conscious of the context of English learning within this country, along with her own experience in TESOL teaching situations, where she was often discouraged from encouraging multilingual discourse as a path to learning English, Bugingo navigated these discussions carefully. Through experience, push back on integrating other languages in English learning spaces made some sense considering the arguments put forth, 1. That many learners do not have access to learn the language outside of these spaces (their families do not speak English and it is not a language commonly heard in the community), so encouragement when in these spaces is essential, and 2. That in instances with non-native tutors/consultants interested in learning the primary language (i.e. Kinyarwanda), these individuals would benefit more from this experience than the writer/learner, detracting from the learning space and the financial investments often made by the learner. Given these factors, the consultants and Bugingo had to find a balance between “Students’ Right to Their own Language” and the cultural context and need in Rwanda. They ultimately made the decision to use both languages to assist students who choose this path. This allowed the center to begin reaching a larger population of writers. Because of this decision, within a semester, the student was speaking full sentences in English, a testament to the work done by consultants familiar with both languages and committed to the growth and development of all learners in the community.
Investment in community is an integral element of Rwandan culture, which clearly shows up in the writing center. But beyond that, consultants cultivated a uniquely strong commitment to the space and to fellow learners. In Rwanda, a culture often known for late arrivals and sometimes unreliable attendance, the selected consultants rarely missed opportunities to work in the center, and they were always on time. Further, when offered the chance to volunteer for university-wide writing workshops, consultants almost always contributed. One of the largest challenges still facing the center today is the lack of funding the university can provide, causing consultants to serve in a more voluntary capacity. This is something that could easily cause a lack of commitment in the center, but it does not. Louange Imbimpande argues that this remarkable “level of commitment could be linked to a community perspective on English, as a common viewpoint is that English is the language of business. As many Rwandans hold multiple jobs, and simultaneously run small businesses, investment in the center could be driven by a cultural value of the language.” However, regardless of motivation, the commitment these consultants show to learning and contributing to others’ learning is incredible to witness, especially given the constraints the center faces.
Training for consultations included meeting for an hour twice/week throughout the first semester, reading writing center and rhetorical theory, discussing theories, and implementing theory in practice consultations with one another. Training also involved some grammar and citation work. Initial consultations were overseen by the director (and later, veteran consultants as well), so that consultants could hone their skills through feedback. At first, it was a struggle for consultants to step back and support the writer in maintaining ownership of the writing, which some might argue is also based in cultural context, as instruction more common in Rwanda is lecture-based and built around correcting students directly, rather than helping them identify their own mistakes. However, after some in-depth conversations and theory-based discussions on why ownership of the writing would help the writer to better connect with their work and grow as writers moving forward, ownership became a key conversation in the center and a key component of how consultants ran their consultations. Consultants eventually began serving more as a voice for reflection and questioning, driving the writer forward in the piece.
A unique project the consultants truly valued was one designed to share books with all of the surrounding community. Upon first arriving in Rwanda, Bugingo identified that the books at institutions were often lower level than the learners studying in these institutions identified needing (i.e. the high school had elementary and middle school level books) and wondered how these students could increase their language learning if they didn’t have the proper tools. Partnering with Boise State University’s Books in Every Home (BIEH), Bugingo and the consultants created a list of books that might be helpful for students and institutions in Rwanda and worked to distribute these donated books to all four provinces within the country. Bugingo actually began this project in her first week in-country, but it evolved after beginning work with the consultants. In conversation, a consultant, David, identified that given the limited number of books, the library did not allow students to take books home. Rather, books were to be read in the library at the university. He lamented that “this made reading difficult, as who was able to spend time in the library after classes” (classes can run from 7am-5pm). Following this conversation, Bugingo and BIEH decided that the consultants would identify books they would have wanted access to in the past, as well as some they would now value, to put books in the homes and hands of students and instructors. The team also created mini-lending-libraries in UNHCR camps and schools, reaching both rural and city populations, to connect students like David with books they could borrow and return. Reflecting on this work, center consultant Karemera Arbogaste indicated “Our center was helpful and always will be. I don’t know what else to say about the center except that it was and always will be.”
Consultations in the center can vary from verbal interactions to research-based writing to personal pieces. Students in-country indicated that the interest in writing development was driven more by future goals, an interest in studying abroad or, again, an awareness that while they might study IT, they could start a small business or get a job in secretarial work, as education often does not dictate a career. It is here where we witness a clear sense of planning ahead. Many student writers invested in developing creatively would often bring stories for consultations, working to develop a stronger understanding of creative writing or to use writing to work through traumatic experiences, something that did not seem to be taught within the institutional structure. Fabiola Umutoniwase, a strong creative writer, working on a novel while studying Electronics and Telecommunications, identifies that “reading and writing is what I love the most, and being a part of the center is the best help with that.” She values any opportunity to work with writers, but especially creative writers.
Additionally, language selection is based on the comfort and level of the learner. Consultants tend to default to English, unless the learner needs to or chooses to work in Kinyarwanda; often English phrases the learner is familiar with are used first and Kinyarwanda is supplemental, to help expand knowledge, and other times, Kinyarwanda can be used in discussion and English for writing. There are many ways a consultation can progress. Ultimately, consultations evolve into whatever writing, reading, or speaking support student writers need, striving for a balance between WC theory and cultural context.
The English Language Center was periodically shut down as COVID-19 hit and schools closed. Challenges for the center include these interruptions, as it caused regular appointments to be canceled and investment to dim. Additional challenges include a lack of funding for the center, made more difficult as now that Bugingo is no longer in-country, the English Department must maintain the center, without significant financial support for a director, and also retain consultants who still do not have ethical compensation for their work. Bugingo is continuing to try to fund the center through grant money and other means, but it is in process. Thus, the center is working to continue developing and remain a sustainable and valued institution for writing and speaking development at IPRC-Huye.
Ultimately, international work like this reminds us of a few key things. While, arguably, some problems are much more expansive than others, we all face the same problems. For example, Bugingo witnessed funding issues in Boise, Idaho, just as she witnessed funding issues in Huye, Rwanda. Here it is also worth noting that writing centers have value in that they assist in growth for all students. Globally, we need to place financial value on these centers.
Further, we all have something we can learn from one another. The investment and commitment in the center and in writing was a profound component of the experience in Rwanda and is something centers and consultants around the world can learn from. Imagine a situation where you’re rarely tested on a skill or ability, and yet, you still commit to learning and growing in that space– this commitment is inherent in writers in Rwanda, especially the center’s consultants. However, the most important takeaway is that we need to respect the cultural context of a center when working to build or revitalize a space. Each university in each city in each country has its own culture. It is essential to respect that culture when working to build something within the community. Bugingo did this as best she could, by simply asking “what do the students need and desire?” She let that guide her decisions as a director. Ultimately, she would assert that we first need to genuinely learn the space and the people before attempting to make any changes.
“About Fulbright – What is the Fulbright US Student Program” https://us.fulbrightonline.org/about/fulbright-us-student-program. Accessed 10 July 2022.
Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, editors. Naming What We Know. Utah State University Press, 2015.
Murphy, Christina and Steve Sherwood, editors. The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.
“Students’ Right to their Own Language.” Special Edition of Conference on College Composition and Communication, vol. XXV, 1974, https://cdn.ncte.org/nctefiles/groups/cccc/newsrtol.pdf.
Williams, Timothy P. “For the Third Time in 11 years, Rwanda Changed the Language Used in Primary Schools.” The Washington Post. 24 January 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/24/third-time-11-years-rwanda-changed-language-used-primary-schools/. Accessed 15 July 2022.
Margaret Bugingo is a rhetorician with 9 years of university teaching experience. Her most recent work includes a 9-month Fulbright award, where she built and directed the first documented writing center in Rwanda, which later evolved into a multi-year collaboration. Bugingo previously worked in writing center administration at Boise State University and was recently offered a position with the writing center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Bugingo earned her MA in rhetoric and composition from Arizona State University in 2012 and her BA from the University of Connecticut in 2009. Bugingo will always be passionate about rhetoric, particularly community literacy, but her current goals center more specifically around international collaborations. She has a TESOL Certificate and has worked with multilingual students from South Sudan, Bosnia, El Salvador, Kenya, and more. In her free time, she has collaborated with Global Ties Idaho, a partner of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) as well as the YALI, Mandela Washington Fellowship Program, both international exchanges organized by the U.S. Department of State. Bugingo is an aspiring multilingual— she speaks Spanish, Kinyarwanda, and is learning French.