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The Founder of Isaro Foundation Speaks at Hope Kids Academy

December 19th, 2013

In the quest of improving reading and writing skills in Rwanda, Jean Leon Iragena, the founder of Isaro Foundation, spoke at Hope Kids Academy at the invitation of the school’s administration.

SPEECH AT HOPE KIDS ACADEMY

Mister Director,

Esteemed Parents and Educators,

Students of Hope Kids and Junior Academy,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is for me an honor and a great privilege to be addressing such a wonderful gathering at one of the most respected schools in this country. On one side, I am very humbled to have been chosen to deliver this address. On the other side, I have to admit I am very excited, but also somehow anxious like anyone else who would be privileged to be in my shoes right now. Speaking to a group of one of the brightest students in this country is not – and should not be easy.

Today reminds me the very first day of my primary education back in 1996! I was very excited to learn, but also was uncertain about how my performance would be. My parents and relatives’ expectations were very high. Of course I had to work hard enough to, at least, not deceive them. It is has been a long time since then, but today, 17 years later, things haven’t changed that much: Education was and is still considered the best weapon in the fight against poverty; going to school is still the best shortcut towards the fulfillment of our most daring dreams. Even the recently departed Nelson Mandela once said (and I quote) “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

That shows how important and compelling education is. This should also remind you how important educators and parents are. I remember how hard my parents pressed me to go to school five days a week, seven hours a day, even when I was busy inventing “reasons” and “excuses” so that I could skip.

Slowly but surely I started enjoying school, the lessons, the playing with friends and most importantly the last day of every term where I always made it in the top five. After my primary school, I brilliantly passed my national examinations and was admitted to one of the most prominent schools in the country, but I chose to enroll at Saint Vincent’s Minor Seminary, a unique school, just as Hope Kids Academy.

The Seminary is a very challenging environment. It’s a very competitive boys’ school where all activities are compulsory: studying, reading books, participating in sports, and (of course!) praying. All these are considered of equal importance. It’s during my seminary years that I developed my passion for reading novels, magazines and other forms of literature. It is also there that I started writing my first literary works like small poems and essays. At the age 19, I was lucky enough to publish my first novel called ‘Rusaro’ that I had started writing a year earlier. Studying at an excellent school gave me the opportunity and I did my best to take advantage of it. I challenge you to do the same.

There is one important similarity between the school I went to, Ndera Junior Seminary and Hope Kids Academy; that is knowledge beyond classrooms. For the last thirty years, the world has incredibly changed; it is no longer enough to just go to school and memorize everything the teacher says. Today’s success requires critical thinking, the awareness of the World around you and a devotion to community service. I am sure that Hope Kids Academy is a way to go for every kid who wants to succeed. Very few schools in this country can take an initiative like the one you took to support people with disability in Huye district early this month. In addition, numbered schools can have such an event in order to improve students’ reading and writing skills.

Some people think that reading and writing take much time for students not to study other subjects. From my own experience, I insure you that reading and writing didn’t distract me from my normal studies; I kept making it in the top 5 and brilliantly passed the A Level National Examinations where I ranked second in the whole country. For this I was awarded by the president of Rwanda a scholarship to study in the United States of America. I am currently double majoring in Applied Mathematics and Pure Economics at Millsaps College, one of the best American schools. In December 2012, I was elected as the commissioner of youth and culture in the Rwandan diaspora around the globe. I still have time to read and write.

Some may say I’m lucky and I wouldn’t dispute it. Born in a normal family in the suburbs of Kigali, I did not grow to experience my father’s writing and leadership skills. He only left us when I, the elder of the family, was barely 5. My mother knew where the richness comes from; knowledge. She struggled to have me and my brothers go to school, so did we struggle by studying hard to make sure her money was not spent in vain.

When I was a kid my dream was to study in the richest country on Earth, the United States of America. I made it, but that was not enough. I feel obligated to help others achieve their own dreams as well. Someone once said that as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. There are many young people in Rwanda who can’t afford books to read and some Rwandan authors still find it difficult to publish their works. Others might like reading and writing, but they don’t have teachers, parents and others mentors willing to help them develop their talents. Some adults don’t see too much value in reading and writing.

After reflecting on all these difficulties, I decided to start a non-governmental organization that helps students throughout Rwanda to easily get the most recent books. I wanted every child in Rwanda to own at least a book, just like the Government wants a cow in every Rwandan household. I wanted students who are interested in reading and writing to get together with same-minded youngsters from across the country and share their common passion. I wanted to provide trainings for teachers in every district of the country so that they can mentor their students. That is how Isaro Foundation was born on October 15th 2011.

In just two years, Isaro Foundation has impacted 32 000 students throughout the country. We were able to train 100 students and teachers, created 42 Isaro Foundation clubs in secondary schools, published a student magazine, and hosted a website that features various creative works from students. We donated 16000 books, 11000 electronic books and 52 kindles. We recently received 20 000 new books from our partners and we are expecting 22 000 more in the next two months. For 2014, we intend to start a magazine and an award event that will recognize the most promising young authors in Rwanda.

Isaro Foundation is one of the most recognized youth organizations in Rwanda, and in 2012 we received the RINA Award for outstanding contribution in promoting literacy in Rwanda.

When I founded Isaro Foundation, I didn’t have any money on my own, or a rich sponsor or a super-mind. All I had was a dream and that is all you need. No matter how foolish and unrealistic it may seem, you should not underestimate your dream or your capacity of achieving it. You should remain focused on what you want in life, and never let anything or anyone distract you from it. I am not saying that it will be easy. You will encounter doubt, rejection, fear and disbelief, but all that is part of the learning process. It won’t kill you; it will just make you stronger.

As I mentioned earlier, school is very important and every single course you take here is designed to help you become more alert and skilled in the future. Students of Hope Kids Academy, you are exceptionally blessed. This is the first school in Rwanda to offer programs for Cambridge International Examinations not only in Primary and Secondary but also the Cambridge ICT Starters Program. That makes you the pioneers in this new era of fast communication and data sharing. You have a better platform for spreading your ideas, fears, dreams, ambitions and hopes across this world by a simple click. The world is at your fingertips and for you the word “boundaries” will soon seem as obsolete as “desktop” or “public telephone”.

Communications is more important than ever before, and communication always rhymes with reading and writing. So please read so that you will be able to write. Don’t get distracted by TV, video games and social networks. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy them myself but I always write something new every week and I try to read a new book every three weeks. It is easy, you all can do it – and should do it. Abraham Lincoln once said ( and I quote):”The things I want to know are in books, my best friend is the man who will get me a book I ain’t read”. Make such friends in your life.

After reading, take time to relax. You have courts and a swimming pool to train your body and maintain your health. Take your education to the highest possible level for a bright future; your future is built here and today. You have one of the best educators in this country, I met them myself. Please, don’t waste this unique opportunity. Your parents, teachers, colleagues and friends have hope in you. On such an occasion, I wish I could say more, but you know that time is limited.

I would like to thank the director for the gracious invitation he extended to me. As Isaro Foundation, we are looking for a way to work together in promoting education, especially the culture of reading and writing. We are ready to assist willing students in creating an Isaro Foundation club in your school and we will always be available whenever you need our support. Who knows? Maybe some of you will go on to become the next Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Agatha Christie or JK Rowling!

Thank you very much for your kind attention!

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