As part of my recent trip to Africa, my two friends and I spent several days in Rwanda and went on a Mountain Gorilla Trek. The driver and guide was an impressive and intelligent young man named Ismail, who attends University in Kigali when he's not driving. Ismail is very serious when it comes to his education and promoting education among Rwandan children. To that end, he likes to hand out ballpoint pens to kids.
"They have only pencils in school," he told us. "So if they get something special like a pen, they will take it to school to show off to their friends. It motivates them to go to school, and the parents are proud also."
This story, along with Ismail's personal story of surviving The Genocide with his mother and baby brother, moved us tremendously. We wished we had pens . . . or something. We also noticed that Rwandans seemed to be dressed in a variety of American tee shirts, and Ismail explained that they prefer them to the clothes they get from China.
When I got home, I packed up two boxes, containing 150 blue ballpoint pens, over 60 Dickens Universe tee shirts from various years, a pile of kids' books, and some cloth shopping/book bags. In what felt like a leap of faith, I sent the boxes off to Rwanda, wondering if it might have been better to just send the money. But, just like giving a kid a pen instead of the money that might buy a pen encourages him to go to school, I was hoping the tee shirts might also spark something in the kids. They might want to show off their new shirts, and they might ask about this Dickens person. It seems like that is worth more than just money.
You can read more about my trip to Africa on my blog.