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Covid-19: Rushed Rwandan departure

June 8, 2020

An interview with Monique Spijk 

Last picture with my entire team.

Since September 2019 Monique Spijk has been working in Rwanda as a District Teacher Advisor (DTA). She participated in a project training English and math teachers through the specially developed Building Learning Foundation Program. She was to remain until September this year. But Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works. She was forced to return, Head over heels to the Netherlands.

 How did that happen?

Monique: “When the reports of Corona arrived, my first intention was to simply remain; Rwanda seemed safer than the Netherlands and of course I was far from finished. But my colleague with a lung condition choose to leave immediately, and simultaneously a debate was raging in the Netherlands about closing the borders. Additionally, my daughter is pregnant and I was afraid that if everything was locked down, I would miss the birth. The Rwandan government then announced that the country would be going into lock down. Then everything went into over-drive: on Wednesday evening the call came that another flight had been arranged for Thursday evening. The house had to be emptied and everything packed (luckily my team came to assist) and on Thursday I was picked up to go to the airport. The colleague I worked closely with, met me on his scooter halfway to say goodbye, the rest I could only text.”

Saying Goodbye

What was it like coming home?

A teacher uses her time to make materials free of charge, for students with special educational needs.

Monique: ” It was strange returning to Dutch society so abruptly. I hadn’t had the usual chance to say goodbye, round things off and hand things over. I left in the middle of everything and that was very frustrating. You need to finish things and ensure a good handover. You need time emotionally to prepare to say farewell. I didn’t get that time. Fortunately, in the Netherlands, I was able to immediately return to work for my old employer and am now back in front of the class twice a week. I am also co-operating with the team continuing the project by telephone.”

Online Teaching

How does that work?

Monique: “As a team, we are in contact with the Rwandan teachers. I support my team using ZOOM meetings and WhatsApp. They in turn guide their teachers by telephone and SMS which is not easy; teachers are often not available; work on their land, there is no electricity so their phones are not charged or perhaps they don’t even own a phone. It is important that they progress through self-study. We try to guide them as much as possible. For example, they can become proficient through the use of the calculation guides that we provide. This situation actually lends itself to this type of training: there is more time because the schools are closed. My team is doing a good job. But the most important element missing in this approach? Hands-on contact so can judge whether something is working or not. The teachers are on their own and because of the distance, it is hard to tell if the results are what we are looking for.”

Pupils following the lessons during the lockdown through the radio and with the help of father or mother.

“Another problem is that there is currently no insight into the progress of the students. The Rwandan Education Board, together with our BLF and Mineduc of the Rwandan government, offers English lessons and depends on TV and radio, but often people don’t own a radio or TV, let alone have access to the Internet.”

“Also, these programs use books that are kept at school, preventing students who attend classes at home from doing the exercises.”

“The skill level of the English lessons is often set too high; above the level of even the teachers.”

That’s life

What did you learn from the Rwandan people?

Monique: “The people in Rwanda, and not only Rwanda but also other non-western areas where I have worked, have a philosophy of life that we can learn from. For example, they survived a genocide. Their motto is: We will survive this virus too. “That’s life.” The simplicity of life there contrasts sharply with life in the Netherlands. Forty types of crisps in the supermarket does not determine your happiness.”


Read earlier interviews from Monique:


Interview by Jeanette Verstraten with Monique Spijk

Translation: B Scott Gould