Tales from abroad: Kigali

A group photo of the Project Rwanda team members and the students who they worked with in Kigali. (credit: Courtesy of Sruthi Chintakunta ) A group photo of the Project Rwanda team members and the students who they worked with in Kigali. (credit: Courtesy of Sruthi Chintakunta ) Local Rwandan women. (credit: Courtesy Of Sruthi Chintakunta ) Local Rwandan women. (credit: Courtesy Of Sruthi Chintakunta ) Students reenacting a farm scene.  (credit: Courtesy of Sruthi Reddy Chintakunta ) Students reenacting a farm scene. (credit: Courtesy of Sruthi Reddy Chintakunta )

Goal: Empowerment through education. Implementation: A four-day summit teaching programming, music, and acting at Nonko Primary School in Kigali, Rwanda.
The finale: A spectacular showcase of the students’ work and creativity, heartwarming friendships, and a commitment to sustainability.

Begun in September 2009, Project Rwanda is a student-run initiative in collaboration with One Laptop per Child (OLPC), an international nonprofit association. The laptops are referred to in short as “XO.”

12:05 a.m. Thursday, May 13, 2010 — Ten Carnegie Mellon students from Pittsburgh and Qatar arrived in Kigali, Rwanda. We were greeted by Sam, a regional OLPC director, and two taxi drivers. We would be residing in a local church. During the drive, Sam asked, “What do you know about Rwanda? Aside from genocide?” This was a good question, and we paused for a moment. Vishal Agrawal, a junior electrical and computer engineering major, discussed Rwanda’s progress in education. Ariel Solomon, a junior business administration major, chimed in and conveyed everything she knew about the country’s recent technological development and social reforms for women, the homeless, and petty thieves. Sam was pleased that we had well-grounded, factual information about his country — but there was still much to learn.

Introductions at the school

“Muraho!” (“Hi!”) we exclaimed as we walked into the school’s classrooms for the first time. We began by introducing ourselves and expressing our excitement for what was to come. “Amakuru?” (“How are you?”) we asked. The children’s excitement was stimulating. In our first attempt to break the ice, we taught them to “pound it,” an American hand greeting. The next few days would be challenging and fun-filled, and ones that we were determined to cherish together. We were to teach a total of 130 students for six classes each day.


One of the XO applications that we taught was Scratch, a programming application. It features block “drag and drop” programming for beginners. Over a period of four days, we taught the children the basics of programming. At the end, we were able to build a game to show students that programming could be fun and that there were many possibilities for achievement.


“The days pass, but laughter does not...” This was the title of a song we learned from the children during one of our lessons. Tam Tam is a series of music applications on the XO laptops. Before delving into these applications, we wanted the students to gain a sense of the meaning of music, as it was unique to each student. We then explored key concepts such as tempo, beats, loops, and rhythm through multiple exercises. The students not only created their own music, but performed to it as well in a “Nonko’s Coolest Band” competition.


Acting is a way for people to express themselves, showing that communication transcends words. Therefore, we used the Record application with a built-in XO webcam to convey our message. Using Record, the students recorded their emotions and expressions. Then they acted and recorded scenes, such as a surprise birthday party or a school session. They even created their own props and scripts for an animal farm scene, which they later reenacted in front of their peers.

Complementing our school experience, we were able to soak in the rich Rwandan culture through a road trip to Lake Kivu, a soccer stadium, and a memorial site; dinner with a Rwandan family affiliated with the Ministry of Education; and a tour of a handicraft factory.

Our favorite memories

“When the students tried to pronounce our names and showed that they cared for us and we had become friends.” —Sruthi Reddy Chintakunta, senior electrical and computer engineering major.

“My favorite moment was after the finale performance when all the kids crowded around us as we were leaving. I could tell that they had fun during our summit programs, and one girl came up to me and promised me that she would never forget me. At that moment I felt that we broke all the barriers we had created in our minds about Rwanda, and all of our efforts had paid off. It also inspired me to make this project sustainable for years to come and perhaps even return to Rwanda one day.” —Urna Biswas, junior business administration major.

“We were there to teach, but we couldn’t even speak their language. Using a translator, it is hard to really tell whether the students understand what you are saying or if they are even learning anything. One time, we solved out a programming problem orally and then had them do it on the laptop; each one of the students smiled as their laptop made a resounding ‘meowwwww,’ and I knew from their faces that they understood.” —Joshua Debner, senior electrical and computer engineering major.

“[My] favorite moment in Kigali was when all the kids outshined each other in the finale and then taking snaps, sharing hugs and e-mails, and the kids shouting, ‘We will never forget you.’” —Jim Briggs, junior information systems and business administration double major.
“My favorite moment was realizing that they know more about American history than we do!” —Ariel Solomon, junior business administration major.

“When we distributed candy and other goodies to the kids. The contribution of speakers, soccer balls, etc. to the school was a great moment. The students were really excited to play and have fun with the new stuff! For me, this moment was memorable and priceless.” —Abhay Joseph Valiyaveettil, sophomore information systems major.

“Learning a song from the children titled ‘The days pass, but laughter does not’ and bonding with them, in spite of language barriers, through the music we created together.” —Amy Badiani, senior social decision sciences and public policy and management double major.

“Learning about the Rwandan culture and integrating the teaching techniques these children were most comfortable with.” —Waleed Khan, junior information systems major.

We share more of our amazing experiences in Kigali at cmuprojectrwanda.wordpress.com and also at www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxEPZ3dZfuo. We have also created a permanent home for Project Rwanda in the Stever Inspiration Room, capturing our happy memories and displaying a mural created by the students at Nonko.