Pity the Poor Student

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Slashed Allowances

By David Kattenburg

Most visitors to the National University of Rwanda, in the southern town of Butare, will arrive at the campus’ main entrance, on foot or the back of a motorbike, via hilly Butare’s single paved road.

A more intrepid guest will trudge down a red dirt path a dozen meters below, along the edge of a green valley fringed by terraced plots of corn and beans, rubbing shoulders with young men in baggy jeans and dress shirts, stylish women with their hair in dreads or braids, and with peasants pulling goats or balancing something on their heads.

Just beyond the Restaurant Illumination, where cash-strapped scholars chow down on forty-cent plates of white rice, fries, noodles, sweet potatoes, bananas, beans, and spinach – beneath posters of muscular footballers and Avril Lavigne smiling coquettishly – the NUR’s lower campus finally appears. Shouts rise from a mob of youths loitering beside the Campus Fashion Shop and Mini Alimentation OK, where used shoes are scrubbed for resale in soap-filled buckets. They won’t be shouting at you. It’s just the hoot and holler of Rwandan university students amusing themselves in the spot they call home.

The lower campus is a totally different realm from the “Ivory Tower” above (founded by Canadian priest George-Henri Levesque). All around a dozen student hostels, draped over lengths of cord, or sprawled out on the grass, clothes dry beneath a brilliant sun: white shirts and blouses, T-shirts and jeans, jackets for Butare’s cool evenings, and scads of socks and underwear. Many of the NUR’s twelve thousand students live here. They come from all over Rwanda, typically from poor families, dreaming of the degree they’ll earn in medicine, pharmacy, political science, economics, journalism or communications and of the secure job hopefully to follow in this famously bustling African economy.

Not all dreams come true, though, and their slog has just become more daunting. Up to now, on top of free tuition, the NUR’s eight thousand government-sponsored students received a monthly allowance of 25,000 Rwandan Francs (CAN $36) to cover their daily costs. But at the start of the current semester, in early January, Rwanda’s Education Ministry announced that only a quarter of them would be so blessed.

The government’s rationale is straightforward. If Millenium Development Goals for primary and secondary school education are to be achieved, it can only afford to cover the costs of the most impoverished students and genocide orphans. The remainder will have to cover daily costs themselves, the government says. “It is not an ideal condition for a student,” Education Minister told Rwanda’s New Times newspaper in late February. “Some have been living at their colleagues’ mercy, sharing food, lodging and sanitary utensils. We would not wish this to happen, but times are changing and our budget is small.”

So are the budgets of most Rwandan university students, says Eugene Kwibuka, a former NUR student now studying for a Masters of Journalism degree at Carleton University, in Ottawa. “These students are Rwandans from ordinary low-income Rwandan families who wouldn’t have dreamed of joining the university had it not been for the government’s previous promise to support them,” says Kwibuka. “I can’t imagine what would have happened if the government had decided to stop this fund at any time during my stay at the university.” The Kagame government should take a different tack, argues Kwibuka. “I would suggest that the government of Rwanda finish what it has started. It can decide to enrol fewer students under its support next time, but it can’t discontinue support to students who are already under its protection.”

That’s precisely what the Rwandan government intends to do, and dismay is widespread. Students who’ve lost their cash allowance “can be prostitutes to gain money,” mutters Clement, a 21 year-old pharmacy student. He and three other young men share two single beds in a tiny, 20,000 Franc/month room beside a banana grove on the floor of the valley beneath Butare’s lower campus.  “If you come from a family which can’t pay you for a restaurant, or pay for your hostel, or even paying for your lecture notes on time, what can you do? Why don’t you steal?”

Theft is one of the least desperate measures Rwandan university students now contemplate. A genocide orphan studying at the Kigali Institute of Education, in the capital city of Kigali, reportedly killed himself at the end of January upon hearing of allowance cuts. “The Minister of Education has done nothing to console us or the family of the young victim,” complain four of the dead student’s classmates in a bold open letter to Rwandan president Paul Kagame, published in late February on a French-based opposition website entitled “The Wind of Change.” Education Minister Charles Murigande must resign, the four students write.

The open letter’s authors describe the “deplorable” situation Rwandan university students now face: forced to share beds and meal cards; fainting from hunger and exhaustion; descending into delirium; reviving themselves with drugs. Allowance cuts, they argue, are just one of a series of policies that have damaged Rwanda’s education system, including the recent diktat that courses must be taught in English, even though Rwanda’s underpaid professors are more comfortable in French. “These professors prepare their courses in French, enter them into computer programs for English translation, then toss incomprehensible notes to students to manage the best they can,” the letter states.

In Kagame government terminology, the most explosive of the open letter’s claims amounts to “genocide ideology,” a high crime here. Minority Tutsi students, the letter’s authors write, have been spared the brunt of bursary cuts due to their membership in genocide survivor groups, while Hutu students have been spied upon and dispersed. “All students are Rwandans and should be equal before the law. Choosing some to support and forgetting others is an injustice that can lead to conflict and division liable to destroy the country in the future.” If the current situation continues, the Kigali students sum up, “We may be driven to demonstrations, perhaps to be shot.”

Rwanda’s season of student discontent will almost certainly not go this far. Strikes and street protests are frowned upon or illegal here. And Rwandan students are less inclined to push the envelope than their counterparts in more liberally-minded countries. “Oh my God, that’s now allowed! You’d be jailed!” blurts one second year student here in Butare, who asked to remain anonymous. “There’s never been such a thing! They’d arrest the leaders and throw them in jail, and that would be that!”

The Rwandan government– caught off balance by student complaints — is now considering appeals of its allowance cuts. The National University is also stepping in with its own supports for the most anguished of its young scholars. “They are trying to provide scholarship, tuition fees, to those who have nothing,” says Georges Rwamasirabo, NUR Vice Dean of Arts. “There is no exclusion. Probably in the beginning there were some mistakes that are being made, but this is not intentionally saying, we refuse this. No … I don’t think so.”

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