Debate Mate Rwanda 2019 – Week 1

Having arrived in the land of a thousand hills, we soon realised how much cultural, natural and historical attractions the country had to offer.

On the first Saturday, we were lucky enough to be invited to “Umuganda” which translates to “coming together in common purpose to achieve common goals”. Umuganda, is when the community gathers together to work on overall national development. It was intriguing to hear the locals’ report on the issues, achievements, and guidelines of the community.  We can definitely apply what we learn from Umuganda to the Debate Mate programme in promoting community development and speaking in a persuasive manner.


Saturday night we took a trip to the Niyo Arts Gallery founded by Pacifiique in 2004. His art-focused community centre was born out of the need to raise money for vulnerable children of Kigali with 40% of the profits supporting the local community. Niyo Arts Gallery hosts numerous young local artists and traditional dance and African drum performances, showcasing Rwanda’s potential in the art scene.


On Monday morning, our first day of teaching was underway at the Univerity of Rwanda. The students came from far and wide across Rwanda to be involved in the Debate Mate programme. Any mentors nerves were soon settled as we were welcomed with a friendly “muraho”. With the mentors ushered into teaching groups, we soon realised the students had varied levels of debating and English language abilities. However, we soon adapted, providing a fun and energetic beginning, launching with a Ballon Debate, with popular African role-models such as Paul Kagame, Barack Obama, Desmond tutu dominating the discussion. It became clear that the final two students had the ability to think quickly on their feet convincing the audience on why their character (Bill Gates vs Paul Kagame) should be saved. A wide range of persuasion techniques were used, such as rhetorical questions, bribery, and repetition – all in play to gain the audiences’ vote. With the final round resulting in Bill Gates taking the win. We ended day one developing the students’ PEEL technique making sure that they applied the structure when making an argument. At first, we were apprehensive with the students’ willingness to engage in controversial issues, but they naturally threw themselves into motions discussing whether Rwanda should lower the voting age to 16 and whether we should decriminalize all drugs.  The students’ open-minded discussion on whether decriminalization was a force of good, or not was particularly impressive. We ended the day in agreement that our students had managed to grasp the basics of the programme and each mentor confident that they had the winning team.

Day two of the programme consisted of teaching the students more about structuring arguments, and crucially, how to respond to arguments. We started the day off with a game of ‘If I ruled the world… I couldn’t disagree more’. A game in which we ask the students what they would do if they ruled the world, and then getting the following student to disagree with the proposed idea. This was to lay the groundwork for creating rebuttal in arguments, but was made much more challenging by ideas such as ‘If I ruled the world I would end poverty’ – not an easy idea to dispute. However, they were dealt with incredibly well; arguments about relative poverty and the rise of communism being suggested in response. One student on being prompted about what he enjoyed doing, in order to guide him in his tyrannical policy choice, was heard saying ‘I like two things; football and justice’, Mike Dean in the making perhaps.

Moving on to the main chunk of the day explanations about what PEEL is, what rebuttal is and what points of information are made the day quite heavy and dependent on a lot of listening to the mentors. That said, no students ever switched off and the interactive games which we used to solidify understanding of these concepts really helped bring an energy and buzz to the day. In one of the games, ‘Alley Rebuttal’, students were tasked with coming up with arguments on the spot as well as rebuttals to the arguments previously made. Bearing in mind that practically all of the students had never done anything closely resembling a debate before, the standard was astounding. The motion chosen ‘This house would ban music with reference to violent lyrics’ was a deep-well of thought-provoking ideas, with many arguments that we’d never even thought about, or heard about whilst teaching in the UK. A group favourite being the fact that a lot of African music is based around the rhythm and beat of the song, as opposed to the actual lyrics.

We then moved on to Points of Information, and had the classes re-enacting parliamentary traditions of old, namely the placing of one’s hand on one’s head (in order to stop your wig falling off of course), and the extending of your other palm (to show you are without cutlass). The students grasped the concepts of attacking and defensive POI’s very rapidly and soon we had speeches being interrupted, respectfully and politely, all over. This revelation was soon put into action as we entered into our very first debate of the programme to end the day. The debate was centred around the motion ‘This house would decriminalise all drugs’. A somewhat controversial subject, which was handled with great maturity. Again personal experiences, and anecdotes from wider family life were brought in to create impassioned pleas for the need for good rehabilitation – utilising the power of emotion when making an argument. Ultimately with the debate still raging, winners were chosen and the students left buzzing for the next few days.

After a hectic day of teaching we headed to a delicious Indian restaurant called Lahori, with VJ soon becoming best of friends with the Pakistani owner, helpfully boosting our orders to the top of the menu pile. With our stomachs full and energy recuperated we headed to Hotel Des Mille Collines (famous from the film Hotel Rwanda) for a swim. We thought we had witnessed all the heartwarming wholesome moments of the day having finished our teaching, but we were mistaken. Programme Director, Lizzie entered into teaching frenzy aiming to teach Ade and VJ how to swim over the course of two hours. Words cannot describe the elation seen on Ade’s face as he successfully completed a width of the pool, having almost drowned via impromptu cannonball a few hours earlier. With the team in high spirits, we headed to an early dinner and an early night, optimistic and cheery for the days ahead.

Day three of teaching consisted of recapping the various elements of what we’d taught on the programme so far and two full debates. But to begin the day many of us started with a very entertaining game of Ma-Ma-Moo. This game, which we’d recommend for those sometimes awkward family festive gatherings, consists of getting into a pair to stand in front of the class and act out a scenario, but only using the words ma-ma-moo. Think back to year 9 drama activities, and you’ll be on the right track. It was encouraging and also hilarious to watch our students really allowing the style points, which we’d been teaching over the past few days, manifest themselves via the form of a bad cow impression! But soon after the last scenario of a one man ma-ma-moo show of his performance of ‘I’m not really into football, but I think if I had practised I could have gone on to become as good as Ronaldo’ we figured we should crack on with the day. The first debate of day three was under the motion ‘This house would ban plastic surgery’, and provided some insights into the topic material, which again, we’d never even considered before having run this debate back in England. Arguments stemming from the need for plastic surgery after the tragedy of 1994 really hit home and added a lot of emotion and nuance to the debate, as well as more lighthearted digs at Kim Kardashian and the rise of the overly perfect Instagram influencer. The feedback at the end of the day between the mentors was that the first debate had been a resounding success. Taking everything from the past two jam-packed days and applying them to a higher stakes, more formal setting of a debate is no easy task, and every student impressed. After a quick in-depth inspection of the summary speeches and defining the motion, we moved onto our second debate of ‘This house would not allow countries with poor human rights records to host international sporting events’. A thought-provoking motion, with events such as the Qatar football World Cup coming up. Although some students struggled with the material what was clear to see was that the structure and style that we’d been teaching shined through. Having the confidence and ability to frame an argument, which you might not necessarily have complete knowledge over, into a high-quality solid structure showed real maturity and progress, and gave us great belief that what they learnt here wouldn’t just be left in the classroom. In fact the next day many of our students came up to us saying they wanted to debate the motion again because they’d gone home and done more research into the topic – they knew they had the structure and had gone out of their way to complement that foundation with a wider knowledge base that could identify and build those arguments, which they hadn’t thought of the previous day.

With the teaching day over we headed over to Preet, an Indian all veg fast food joint tucked away in the alleyways of central Kigali. It could be said that Rwandan cuisine doesn’t do justice to itself due to the extremely long waiting times, but that cannot be said of Preet. VJ speaking in his mother tongue of Hindu and Gujarati guided us as to what delicacies were on the menu and soon in a few short minutes orders were flying out of the kitchen and into our bellies. Our resident carnivore, Adam Roble, dismayed at the lack of red meat on the menu, was soon stuffing his face with chapatis, dal and aloo paratha like a man on a mission to rid the world of veg.

After this feast we headed to Kimironke market. Kimironke is a large market in the north of Kigali with vast quantities of fresh produce, and a vibrant and buzzing fabric and clothing section where many tailored suits are produced everyday. What’s striking is the sheer quantity of fruit and vegetables on offer, Rwandan cuisine consists mostly of vegetables in a variety of different arrangements and it was interesting to see its source. We soon found some scotch bonnet chilies and decided to test our nerve by munching down on them then and there. This was a cataclysmic error. Once the crying and pain had subsided the sweat pouring from our brows began. Not ideal when shopping for a nice shirt print in the labyrinth of the fabric market. Whilst we sorted ourselves out, Adam and VJ were busy getting their measurements taken for some vibrant t-shirts. The residents of this bustling market whilst originally charging towards us shouting about cheap prices, soon got chatting with us and many conversations were had about the dire state of Manchester United football and why Arsenal are the greatest team on the planet (the latter might have just been Rohan). Soon we were heading on our way back home – exhausted but excited for tomorrow’s competition. 

Finally the day everyone had been looking forward to had arrived: competition day. After three days of teaching, the students put their debate skills to the test. It was a day filled with strong arguments, Points of Information and of course fun. The final competition was held at the University of Rwanda with some students travelling hours to take part. With over 14 teams of students, the excitement throughout the day was palpable. The students enjoyed being challenged on a wide range of topics. We heard interesting arguments about community service, financial aid and the role of the education system. The students brought their A-game, and every point mattered. In the end there was only a handful of points difference when it came to choosing the final two teams. To battle it out in the final it was Debbie’s team versus VJ and Georgina’s team. In the final the two teams debated pan-Africanism. The speeches were well prepared, passionate, and at times funny. One of the highlights of the final debate was when opposition speaker Mark Abel made everyone laugh with: ‘We can’t have the United States of Africa. There’s already a United States-of America. That’s copyright!’. The progress that they made in three days was impressive and inspiring.  The competition day was an incredible way to finish our week at the University of Rwanda, and reminded us all of the power that debating can have in improving confidence and preparing students for their future success.