BY SUZANNE SINEGAL MCGILL, M.A. CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY / ON A MISSION /
That’s what I would have said if anyone told me eight years ago that I, along with my best friend, Shal Foster, would be the co-founder of a top performing girls’ secondary boarding school for 270 girls, 8,866 miles away in Rwanda.
What did two moms with seven children between us know about starting a school in Africa? We realized how fortunate our kids were to be born in a country where primary and secondary education is a given. Not all children are so lucky, and in many places around the world, girls are especially disadvantaged. Two core ideas stirred in us: education is a basic human right and educating girls is critical. We had to do something.
So we had the impossible dream to create Rwanda Girls Initiative and build Gashora Girls Academy in a country that only 20 years ago was ravaged by a genocide that killed nearly one million people. Currently only 5% of girls finish secondary school and less than 1% of the entire population goes on to get a university education, with women lagging far behind men in that achievement.
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While Rwanda still faces many challenges, it has emerged as a model for the continent. It consistently ranks as one of the fastest growing economies by the World Bank, has one of the lowest corruption rates in Africa, and represents gender parity in its government. Rwanda’s constitution mandates at least 30% female representation in Parliament; today, it is the world’s first female majority parliament with 64% women. Our hopes, and theirs, for girls aligned.
And the impossible became slightly less impossible.
After our first trip to Rwanda in 2007, some of the more “experienced” development advisors suggested perhaps we were in over our heads. There were certainly challenges, like adapting to Rwanda’s social and business culture, raising the money and even warding off hippos and monkeys on our property (yes, that’s real!). Some days were filled with tears and self-doubt, but we had believers too! Our families and friends rallied behind us with love and support.
So we marched on despite the impossible.
When I think of the improbability, the opening line of The Bee Movie comes to mind:
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“According to all known laws of aviation, there’s no way a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to lift its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway – because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.”
Like the bees, we had no business flying. But as we built our amazing team, constructed the school, and enrolled students, we realized this impossible dream was now probable. That gave us the strength to continue through the challenges. Our idea had morphed from theory to the reality of the impact we could have on the girls whose faces and stories we came to know. We carried a different sense of responsibility as these girls became like our own children. So we fought harder to complete the school and provide them every opportunity we could.
The highly improbable was becoming possible.
Once it became possible, we could not stop until it was accomplished. Our little bees – our Gashora Girls – had their own journeys to complete and many of their paths were much more difficult than we could have imagined. Take Enatha, for example, from a rural, subsistence farming family. Motivated by gender bias, her family’s few coffee trees had been burned by another villager in an effort to discourage her from continuing her education. But Enatha is a fighter; she went to primary school, earned the highest score on her middle school exams, and then received a perfect score on the grueling National Exams after graduating from Gashora Girls Academy in 2013. She was named a Presidential Scholar by President Paul Kagame and received a full scholarship to an American university.
Enatha is just one of the 85 graduates from our pioneer class of 2013. Of the 85 graduates, 82 are in colleges, universities or higher learning programs. In fact, 27 of the girls, including Enatha, are in colleges and universities in the United States and Canada at places like Harvard, Yale, Duke, U Penn, Smith, Trinity, Bates, and McGill, to name a few where their combined scholarships total more than $5 million. And our students like Enatha represent so many young women worldwide who are brimming with potential, but who have not yet been given the opportunity of an education.
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Nothing is truly impossible.
I have absolutely learned from these girls’ fearlessness. I spent far too much time in my life afraid to make a mistake. I often chose the path where I knew I would not fail, things that were in my comfort zone. Building this school was definitely out of my comfort zone and I must admit the fear of failure was paralyzing at times. Early on in our planning while agonizing over everything we didn’t know (which seemed like nearly everything), a friend gave me great advice. It’s ok to not have all the answers–no one does even if they claim they do. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath, leap and learn to fly. Certainly, that involves preparation like thoughtful research, but at some point, if you want to make an impact, you have to, against all odds, fly like a bee. You will learn, possibly fail, learn some more, adjust, and find a way to move forward if you’re passionate about what you’re doing.
We started Rwanda Girls Initiative to make a difference in some girls’ lives. Today we realize that our efforts are having a broader and deeper impact—empowering them to dream bigger than any of us ever imagined and to think about how they will impact their country as future leaders. I have no doubt these extraordinary young women will change the world. We are so thankful to be a small part of their story, and we’re even more grateful they’ve become such a large part of ours.
Nothing is truly impossible. With hope, hard work and people who believe in you, you can turn the impossible into the improbable, and the improbable into the achievable.
Fly little bees, fly!