Less than two years ago, Keturah Webster would never have guessed her path would lead to a youth village in Rwanda.
Keturah, 25, began her journey to Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village – where she is now serving in her second year as a full-time volunteer Career Development Fellow – in Washington, D.C., where she was working as a paralegal for a major law firm.
“I actually didn’t want to come to Agahozo,” she confesses. “I had applied to JSC (the JDC Entwine Jewish Service Corps) because I was looking for an experience that would give me something more meaningful…I knew I wanted to go into law, so and I wanted to work with refugees, people applying for asylum, or very specific human rights-based organizations.”
When funding didn’t come through for those sorts of opportunities, JSC asked her to consider Rwanda. At first, she wasn’t interested. “Even though Agahozo deals with human rights in many ways, [at the time] I just saw it as a school.” Keturah had years of experience as a Hebrew school teacher and bar and bat mitzvah tutor, and wasn’t necessarily looking to move toward educational work. “I said to my mom, ‘I didn’t sign up for this to be a teacher.’ But my mom told me to approach this with more openness.” Keturah spoke with someone who had worked at Agahozo before her, who seemed to share many of her own interests in human rights advocacy, and decided it could be worth trying. So she took a leap of faith and boarded a plane to Kigali, Rwanda.
If Keturah was expecting “just a school,” she quickly discovered Agahozo-Shalom is much more than that. Founded in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which left a staggering number of orphans throughout the country, the village aims to enable orphaned and vulnerable youth to realize their maximum potential by providing them with a safe and secure living environment, health care, education and necessary life skills. The village’s founder, the late Anne Heyman, was Jewish, and modeled Agahozo-Shalom on an Israeli youth village originally founded to serve post-Holocaust orphans. Keturah has found that Jewish values have worked their way into the Rwandan students’ way of life in surprising and moving ways.
“I ran a boot camp for college applications and read their essays, and all the kids mentioned Tikkun Olam [the Jewish imperative to repair the world] in those essays,” she said. “A college advisor in the States is going to read this non-Jewish kid from Rwanda talking about Tikkun Olam and wonder, how did this happen? That’s really rare, and very Agahozo – I love that the values here in the village are Jewish.”
Keturah began her work in the village in the career development department and student resource center, whose aim is to “make sure kids can take advantage of opportunities once they leave the village.” This initially involved support with college applications and offering TOEFL classes for the last two years for a select group of talented students.
“At the time [the resource center] was still focused on senior 5 and senior 6 students (the final two years of high school), but when I came they started to expand to the whole school. I jumped right in. The kids in their senior 6 year hadn’t been taking TOEFL classes for months; I wanted to give them an intensive course, so we were meeting every day. Over vacation I met with them at the Kigali library. That’s how I got close to the students, and they became my friends.”
Those students were the first to teach Keturah some crucial lessons of the village – particularly the importance of humility, especially as an outsider coming into a community.
“During the first couple weeks of the TOEFL course, I was teaching the class and was nervous and wanted to make sure it was going well. I would always go up to [one particularly advanced student] and ask how he was, how the class was for him.
“He said, ‘You know Keturah, sometimes you move really fast – sometimes you say, does everyone understand? And 3 or 5 out of 20 raise their hand but you just move on.’ I had assumed no one said they didn’t understand, so everything was fine. This student said, ‘Rwandans are shy. don’t rely on the same 4 or 5 people to speak for the class.’”
Keturah realized at that moment that she had been planning her lessons more in line with her own needs than with her students’. “There were kids way across the spectrum [of understanding] – it was hard to even teach to the middle. I was focused on efficiency. I figured, if 70% get it, the others will just have to catch up. But that wasn’t the right approach. [That student’s feedback] encouraged me to be more thorough with everyone.” It was a reminder for Keturah that “as much as my local colleagues [joke] that I’m Rwandan, I’m not Rwandan, and it’s important for me to [ask for feedback], to be humble even if I think I’m right.”
That same student, says Keturah, also modeled humility himself. “I said to him, ‘What should I do? Should I make two classes, maybe [a separate class] for the kids who aren’t getting it?’ He said, ‘No. We want everyone to be on the same page, we don’t want to leave anyone behind. It’s better for us [the more advanced students] to learn things twice – there’s something new we can get from the information the second time.’ I’ve never talked to an advanced student who’s willing to sacrifice his time or his potential knowledge for the sake of someone else.”
Now in her second year at Agahozo-Shalom, Keturah is convinced this was the best move for her, both in terms of what she had to offer the village, and the growth the village environment has offered her professionally and personally. She has even agreed to stay on another year to continue working on career-development programs for the Agahozo students, beginning in freshman and sophomore year of high school.
“I honestly think I wouldn’t have these kinds of opportunities elsewhere. I love coming up with programs and seeing them through, I can see that the programs are having impact.”
There are plenty of exciting projects in the wings, she says.”There’s a huge push for entrepreneurship in the village – youth unemployment in Rwanda is very high, so we need to empower our students with a curriculum that allows them to connect their skills to something that can generate income. We’re developing curricula that will create those opportunities. It’s really exciting but it’s a lot of work!”
The work is not intimidating to Keturah and her colleagues, however. “We have great support. Everyone here is a really hard worker and is here for the kids.” Projects and educational philosophy aside, Keturah feels it’s the people in the village who have made the most profound impact on her and on the students.
“Agahozo is a family,” she says. “I’ve met so many incredible souls here… Everyone here has so much to share.”