On Friday it was Umuganura Festival, also known as National Harvest Day or Thanksgiving Day, and we were lucky enough to be invited to the local village celebration. The traditional festival is on the first Friday of August each year and typically assesses the harvest of the past year as well as preparing for the upcoming year. This year, the theme in Rwanda was the source and foundation for unity and self reflection. After meeting Will at Umuganda the previous week, he was kind enough to translate for us at the festival. Ronke said a few words on behalf of Debate Mate and the village thanked us for our work in Rwanda and we thanked them for welcoming us into their celebrations. Will told us that every year on this day it rained and the tradition continued, as we got caught in the rain as we left to catch the bus for Kibuye. Although the day was mostly filled with travelling, there were many moments of serendipity. The first stop on our journey took us past the source of the River Nile. We also got a chance to really see the famous Rwandan landscape which has led the country to be known as the ‘land of a thousand hills’. We stopped off for a toilet break, where we tried some unidentified brochette meat and the driver led us to a beautiful church with a choir and a moving memorial in tribute to the victims of the 1994 genocide. Although our bus broke down later on, the local village invited us to an outdoor church ceremony and we joined in on a rendition of ‘Jesus loves me’. We also met someone who had come across Debate Mate before, whilst studying at the University of Rwanda. Once we finally arrived in Kibuye we were met by stunning views and sat down for dinner over a game of cards sharing stories of the day and how many unexpected events had nevertheless led to such a great day. 

After being highly recommended by Ade, we set off for the Nyungwe canopy walk on Saturday morning. Nyungwe National Forest Park was one of three national parks in Rwanda. We were astounded by the variety of landscape in such a small country, with safari parks (Akagera) volcanoes (Musanze) and forests (Nyungwe). Clearly everyone was tired after the journey as we saw Georgina emerge from the men’s toilets and VJ from the women’s, much to our amusement. Although Cat didn’t have her ticket and Rohan had somehow left his passport in Kigali, we all managed to start the canopy walk. Following Debbie and Cat’s photoshoot in the morning, the walk provided more opportunity for some insta-worty pictures using the coveted portrait mode. The view was incredible, with lush green vegetation and exotic wildlife. Despite being in a loud group (we weren’t the noisiest for once) we managed to spot a few monkeys below us. All in all, Ade was absolutely right about the trip being a worthwhile experience but it was equally special to return to Kibuye in the evening where the mentors bonded over a traditional African buffet and a few drinks. 


On Sunday we had an early start as we left for the boat tour. As if we were on the Titanic there weren’t enough life jackets to go round so we prioritised these for those who couldn’t swim, with lifeguards Debbie and Lizzie on watch. We stopped off at three islands, one of which led us to face a swarm of bats and a very stubborn cow. We faced climbing in flip flops (not an easy feat), hot weather and emerging sunburn, but finally made it to the top. The views of Lake Kivu made the trek up worth it. We attempted a mindfulness moment but this was only really achieved by VJ. At the last island we cooled off and went for a swim. Ronke got some great video footage, Debbie tried to swim to the Congo but was stopped by Lizzie and after a lot of coaxing, Adam overcame his fears and jumped from the boat. We said goodbye to Cat’s t-shirt (RIP) and set off back to Kibuye for our journey back to Kigali. Although we had a long journey back to Mamba, many of us agreed it had been the best day so far. This time we were lucky enough to not break down and made it back safely to Desi and our home in Kigali.

On Monday morning we regrouped after a busy weekend and enjoyed a relaxed breakfast at Mamba. After packing our bags and a typical Rwandan buffet lunch we started our car journey to Nyanza. The roads lightly curves back and forth as it twists through the hill and mountains, with every corner producing yet another stunning view.  

But within a hour of the journey our car broke down causing much frustration. Soon enough villagers smiled and waved, with children continually coming up to us for high fives. VJ was quick to spot a local with sugarcane and managed to haggle down the price for a stick, leading to us all feasting on the sugarcane juice, which basically tastes like slightly sugared water. With a crowd of children building bedsides the car, we thought we would put our teaching to the test, starting off with the energising game “Zah!”. We explained to the children that we had giant imaginary ball of fire, called Zah and that the goal was the pass it around the circle as soon as possible. The children became very energetic, jumping visibly and shouting with volume – they were clearly warming to the concept. Even adults were getting involved! We finished our roadside session with a freestyle dance-off playing Azonto by Fuse ODG. The dancing was flamboyant and innovative with different children reinventing the moves to suit their style and energy. It was not too similar to anything we’ve seen before. As we got back into the car, we smiled and waved while handing out sugary sweets. By the end, our hands were tired from waving, feeling like royalty by the end of our car trip. 

We arrived in Nyanza, the capital of the southern province, in the late evening. We unpacked and gathered for a briefing with Uyisenga Ni Imanzi, a national community organisation that works with a range of age groups to promote social mobility around Rwanda. We discussed a broad range of topics, as we prepared for our week of teaching ahead. 

After our travels we were eager to start the objective of our quest: teaching in Nyanza. As we were travelling on the Monday, we only taught for two days before the competition day. Mentors were split into pairs to teach in different schools across Nyanza, with VJ and Lizzie teaching on their own. We enjoyed the challenge of teaching the condensed programme, meeting new people, and trying to master how to write on a chalkboard. On day one we covered the basics: making arguments, style, speech structure and rebuttal. Despite the range of topics covered in the first day, the students enjoyed the build up, culminating in an alley debate. One of the motions that was particularly well received was ‘This house would elect their headteacher’. In such a short space of time the confidence of the students grew tremendously. Despite being covered in chalk, and slightly tired after a long day of teaching, we were buzzing due to how far the students had come in just one day.

After the success of the first day we were all pumped to crack on with day two. This involved recapping the PEEL structure and a day of debating. Motions discussed included ‘This house believes that everyone should not eat meat’, with the most contentious debate saved until the end: ‘This house believes that English is better than maths’. After a day of debating there was much anticipation for the competition the next day – a day which left each mentor confident that their team could win.

At the end of the two teaching days we enjoyed visiting the local market in Nyanza. We wandered through the vibrant and busy market to find stalls selling fruit, clothes and textiles. Ronke and Alex were haggling masters and were joyous in their success in significantly reducing the price of some shoes and t-shirts. Unfortunately, Adam lost his mastery this week, and failed to get the price he wanted. Thankfully Ronke was on hand to show him how true bartering is done.

After celebrating our negotiating talen ts, VJ introduced us all to the delicious and heavenly combination of hot chocolate and lemongrass. Over some cheeky hot beverages we discussed our teaching tales. Each mentor had different highlights. Perhaps most unexpected of all was discovering the impact that sub-par noughties boy bands had on some students. Caterina and Rohan realised this when their student, Celestine, broke into full pop-star mode belting out a rendition of Westlife during a balloon debate. For Alex and Debbie they were taken aback by the breathtaking journey they had each day. Alex, our very own William Wordsworth, commented  that ‘the hills and mountains produced gorgeous views. Eucalyptus trees lined every inch of the hills, laced with bananas’. VJ meanwhile was touched by the progression of his female students, remarking on the first day that they ‘hardly spoke’, but by the second they were ‘energetic, engaged and enthusiastic to participate’. Adam and Georgina were blessed in working with the welcoming teacher Tabaro, who showed them the local area during their lunch breaks, and even introduced them to the famous Nyanza milk. Despite the distinguished reputation Nyanza milk possesses, the thick, yogurt like consistency was not quite to Adam and Georgina’s taste. With our hot chocolates finished, and our anecdotes exchanged, we headed to bed to be fully refreshed for the day that we had all been waiting for: the competition.

The day had come. Competition day. We all woke up early to have breakfast and discuss how we planned the day to pan out – discussing motions, contingency plans and everything else! After turning up at the competition venue, The Red Cross Centre in Nyanza, we received a really warm greeting from the venue’s DJ, the Centre managers and the resident turkey! 

Just between us, rumour has it that this same turkey was pea-cocking in a way that resembled the offering of a Point of Information – unfortunately it was offered during protected time so better luck next time turkey! 

More seriously, the competition day was a fantastic chance for our students from 5 different schools in Nyanza to showcase their skills and abilities in a breathtaking and incredibly impressive way. A recurring theme across the 5 schools on the first day was a reluctance for the students to express themselves and their opinions, however by the competition day (just 2 days later!) ALL of the students transformed into amazing butterfly’s. Seeing the looks of glee and excitement on the faces of the students – something that was surprisingly equally present on the faces of both the winners of their debate and those who were determined to win their next debate – brought so much joy and happiness to all the mentors. 

A debate that had so many of the students energised was ‘This House Believes that urban life is better than rural life’. As a mentor, the sophistication of the arguments that were present in all the debates – encompassing themes such as globalisation, technology, international investment and the quality of public services – genuinely blew us away. Seeing the students really come into their own and approach the debate with such vigour is a testament to the fact that there is no better way to engage someone than by giving them the tools to be able to express themselves on something that they genuinely care about and are affected by on a daily basis. 

After this particular debate the energy levels certainly did not subside (nothing to do with the abundance of sugary Fanta’s at lunch or the blood pressure raising dance mid-way through the day). The grand final debate on the introduction of one language across the world (in this case, English) entailed Georgina and Adam’s Team facing off against VJ’s team. Both teams did amazingly and in the end VJ’s team won (again – to all our chagrins)… It was slightly difficult to exit the hall as VJ’s head had gotten so big after having not only got 2 teams to the finals, but having had both his teams win the finals. 

At the end of the competition day we left Nyanza to return to the capital, Kigali. We went on to have a relaxed evening in our hostel having DMC’s (not debate mate cups) and talking about the euphoria we all felt when we saw our students transform and begin to fulfil their debating potential.

It was Friday and after a hard week’s worth of teaching, it was time for a reward. An early start of 4am and we’re off to Akagera National Park for some safari. A long 3 hour car journey takes us from our hostel in Kigali, to the dusty gates of the park. Outside Rwanda is peaceful and quiet. A glorious blood red sunrise begins to wake the world around us. Upon arrival coffees were in order, as well as the Rwandan breakfast staple of a ‘Rolex’, an omelette wrapped in a warm chapati. The visitor centre is first where we become acquainted with our guide for the day, Caesar, and he explained to us some of the history of the park.

Akagera is in the north east of Rwanda and borders with Tanzania. Made up of many different small lakes and swamps, and centred around the river Akagera, the park is home to a variety of flora and fauna. Most notable of which are Masai giraffes, monkeys, Savannah birds, leopards, and lions.

The park was founded in 1934 to protect animals and vegetation and was the largest protected wetland in Africa at the time. The park used to cover over 2,500 sq. km but in 1997 was reduced in size by close to 50%. A lot of the land was reallocated to refugees returning to Rwanda after the tragedy of the genocide. Before 1997, many refugees returning to Rwanda had settled in the area and the conservation area was harmed by poaching and cultivation. However, new management and strict conservation laws have led to a revamp of the park with new buildings and facilities, as well as the reintroduction of black rhinos and lions.

Surprisingly, our safari started not with beautiful landscapes but a drive through a burnt out blackened environment of shrubs and dead trees. This apocalyptic landscape was not the product of a lightning strike or poaching damage but rather a deliberate act done by the park management to encourage the movement of certain animal species into different grazing pastures. The burnt out cleared areas actually are more emblematic of a nice romantic restaurant, animals such as impala are able to spot their mating partner of choice through the clearing and wander over and introduce themselves. The result for the park is a healthy and sustainable increase in animal numbers, whilst allowing the burnt out part of the park to recuperate until the animals require the land for grazing once again.

Soon we were driving through Akagera spotting wildlife left, right and centre. Giraffes meandered by with a smaller baby giraffe in tow struggling to keep up the pace. Beefy buffaloes gently grazed in the middle of great plains. Viewing from a distance made it hard to establish whether what we were looking at. Was it a pile of rocks or a living breathing mass of the gentle giant? Zebras jumped across our dirt track leading to calls of ‘Zebra crossing!’. Soon after baboons picked at bananas nearby our van, curiously watching on as our khaki laden entourage gasped and guffawed at the bright pink behinds. One of our more adventurous moments of the day was scouring the deep undergrowth for elephants. Our van (which we had to remain in) whilst picking up scrapes and scratches from the sharp vegetation, slowly but not very quietly was able to creep up to a small herd of 5 elephants. Three of the elephants swiftly moved on but the remaining two deftly and gracefully interlocked their trunks and began a trance-like dance slowly moving forward and backwards playfully chasing each other when they broke apart. It was a special moment and beautifully captured thanks to Caesars steady hand where he was able to take photographs through the lens of the binoculars.

Having entered the park around 8:30 we left the gates after a long but amazing day around 4:30. By now we were caked in a thin layer of red dust, our pristine clothes had long since metamorphosed into a sudo-camouflage emulation of their former selves. The three hour journey back to Kigali completed a near 15 hours spent in our small van, but the soreness and stiffness of our bodies was all worth it, for the opportunity to have gotten a step closer to the African wildlife.

We started our Saturday with a well deserved lie in and slow breakfast of our now routine avocados and eggs. We decided to head to Mount Kigali for a short hike and explore the local area. A short taxi ride to the base of the ‘mountain’ and we were off. Truth be told the mountain was a highly populated  and pedestrianised suburb of Kigali. So upon reaching the top after a few short minutes we decided to keep walking on to see what we could find. Not before Alex ‘The Brochette’ Brookes had sourced two quick brochettes (meat skewers) to add to his impressive tally.

The walk along took us to a small bar with a nice view and a chance for Lizzie to overcome her fear of chickens, but alas our patience was thin and the cockerels rowdy and soon we were on the move. This is where the day took a turn for the better, after a short walk and quick photoshoot in front of the beautiful landscape we discovered a action packed activities centre. Horse Riding, zip lining, bungee trampoline and archery were but a few of the adventurous activities on offer. After a quick discussion and attempted haggle a few of us headed to the archery range to test our mettle.

Team India (Rohan and VJ), Team Wonder Woman (Ronke and Georgina) and Team Over Achiever (Adam and Alex) all took their stances and aimed for the bullseye. The competition was good and fair but somewhat worrying as behind the targets set up, every once in awhile, a group of small children would be seen running around, stealing any errant darts which did not hit their mark. We voiced our concerns to our instructor, Jackson, who nonchalantly diagnosed the problem ‘If you hit the target you won’t hit the kids’, this was all the motivation we needed. Alex and VJ were soon in the lead with their arrows striking centre circle over six times each. The ‘Most-likely-to-be-related-to-Legolas’ prize, however, was awarded to Georgina who struck within a millimeter of the central crosshairs.

With our spirits high and celebrations in order we headed back to Mamba for the start of our evening activities. Volleyball was up first with Cat, Georgina and Rohan taking an overwhelming lead against the flappable ensemble of Alex, Adam, VJ and Ronke. A highlight from the game would have to be a superbly played drop shot by Cat, deftly falling to such a place on the court where the only viable play, to VJ’s mind at least, was a powerful double handed strike directly into his own face. A noble effort but to no avail, with the self labelled ‘Team Fist’ powering on to victory. With the competition of the day our thoughts turned to the Kigali nightlife.

A delicious Indonesian meal, complemented by an incredibly accommodating owner allowing us to connect our music to the restaurant speaker system, put us in a jovial mood for the first stop of our night; the local jazz bar. Despite only catching the tail end of the show the melodic, upbeat Rwandan influenced jazz was a delight to watch, and had us bopping away nostalgically telling tales of when and what bizarre musical instruments we used to play. Next up was a pub/club called People, sadly upon arrival the garish garments of shorts had been banned and so Rohan and Alex were turned way, and so onto our previous haunt of last Thursday we went. The fine establishment of ‘Cocoa Bean’ looked out upon the Kigali night, the lack of stars being made up for by the twinkling of city lights. With apple juices, beer and waters in our hands we merrily boogied the night away.

On Sunday we woke up from our night out, with a mix of hangovers and generally lack of energy. However this soon faded as we were fortunate enough to be invited on Magic FM  (Rwanda second biggest radio show) for a 2-4pm slot. Rodriguez the host announced the schedule to the listeners including a mix of classic and recent music and allowing Lizzie and Ronke to introduce the Debate Mate programme to the radio audience. Lizzie specified our aims of developing key skills amongst students of confidence, leadership, empathy and critical thinking. It was a great opportunity to reflect on the last two weeks of teaching and the benefits of empowering students through debating. Rodriguez was also kind enough to let us play a few selected songs, with Alex choosing OutKast “Hey Ya!”, a game-changing song that made pop stars out of OutKast and a style icon out of André 3000. We all singed the catch phase “shake it like a Polaroid picture” paying one long tribute on live radio. Then it was Adam’s time to choose a song. Under pressure, he decided to introduce the Rwandan listeners to a new kind of music that they were unfamiliar with – London rap. It was clear, due to Alex’s rigorous head bopping and Mr Rodriguez’s eye-catching writhing, that Adam’s song choice had changed ‘mainstream’ Rwandan music culture forever. We finished off the set with a group goodbye, stating our love for Rwanda in three words including how cultural, historical and natural the land of thousand hills has been throughout our travels and thanking Rodriguez for hosting us on Sunday afternoon. With spirits high we gathered together for a evening briefing on the balcony discussing another successful week on the Debate Mate Rwanda programme.