Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Bowing Down & Carrying On

Last Thursday a huge storm hit Alexandria… there were trees down everywhere, homes destroyed, and our neighborhood was in a state of chaos for several days. Although it is destructive, I appreciate the reminders from Mother Nature that she is all-powerful.  I also appreciate the luck that comes with randomness… and thankfully my mom’s house was spared- a gigantic oak tree missed her house by a few inches. My sister captures it well:


So in the midst of bowing down to Mother Nature, we decided that my Celebrating Congo Fundraiser must go on- electricity or not! We set up the Stitched by Sally Boutique in the dining room, had photographs and information displayed, and enjoyed a potluck of treats to eat from friends. And lucky for us… the power came back on about an hour before the party!  For more details on the success of Stitched by Sally, visit my mom’s blog.

About half way through the event, we gathered everyone (about 125 people) on the side porch for a brief presentation. First, my dad Lonnie called everyone to order with minimal bellowing.  He acknowledged the former and current elected officials there- Del Pepper, Sheryl Gorsuch and Bill Cleveland, in addition to our Congressman, Jim Moran.

Congressman Moran, a long time friend of my dad, introduced me.  The remark that I was most flattered by, and that really made me think, was when he said, “What Sara is doing adds consequence to her life, and makes us question the consequence of our own lives.” I think it’s really important to feel like your life has worth, and that you have a responsibility to leave the world better than you found it.  And I hope that I’ll always feel/think/act that way, and can get other people to feel/think/act that way too. Needless to say, it was a really nice introduction to step into.

When it was my turn, I read a speech entitled Dreams & Practicalities.

Back in May, a student reporter for our school paper interviewed me about my Goma project. This sharp 12th grader asked me so many great questions, I was so impressed. I found myself openly discussing all of my wildest hopes and dreams.  Towards the end of the interview, he looked at his list of questions and said, “Now for the practicalities. So HONestly, Ms. Rich… aren’t you scared?! You’re going to a war zone!!!”  I laughed.

Honestly, what keeps me up at night are all of these teacher dreams… ideas, just stewing and brewing in my head. I wonder: How might a school enhance student learning in a big way… without any additional costs or new materials? Could teacher collaboration lead to major student-centered progress?  Ultimately I think this approach of collaboration is more effective, relevant and sustainable than donating pencils and school supplies.  Teachers sharing ideas with other teachers just makes sense.

But why in Goma? Why am I going to a place that has been in a state of humanitarian crisis for decades? How is this the most practical choice? There are two organizations- Heal Africa and the Goma Student Fund- who have offered me an (unpaid) opportunity to explore these burning questions and ideas. Not only this, but for the past three years I’ve been teaching the most elite children of Kinshasa.  Working through these projects in Goma gets me “in” with the local community.  It’s an opportunity to work with people that have big struggles and challenges, which presents a greater margin for making an even bigger difference.

All of this came to fruition when I visited Goma last October.

  • I was inspired by the workers at HEAL Africa, and their language of empowerment and rights.
  • I was inspired by the International Women’s Day Parade. According to the United Nations, over 20,000 sexual assaults are reported each year, in the South Kivu Province alone. In Eastern Congo, where rape is used as a weapon of war- there were thousands of women in this parade, standing tall and marching through the streets.
  • I was inspired by the teachers at the Mugunga school. There I was- used to teaching diplomat’s kids who own cell phones that cost more than my monthly salary… and there were the Mugunga teachers, whose students are refugees and orphans that pass out during class because they’re literally starving.  And the most inspiring part was how much cross-cultural pride we ALL had… in our chosen profession as teachers.
  • I wondered, how can we get involved with these teachers?
  • I wondered, what kinds of great things could we accomplish together?

I’ve been thinking a lot about all the possibilities.  Maybe we could…

  • develop a collaboration model that other international schools- in developing countries around the world- could use to reach out to their local community.
  • create a professional development model for teachers in a variety of learning environments.
  • develop a model for school accreditation that could be adopted by the Congolese government.
  • build solidarity among the teachers of Congo.
  • collaborate with local businesses and use microfinance models to generate some income among families who can’t afford school fees.
  • The possibilities are truly endless

What have we done so far?

In March the Outreach Team visited Goma together on a basic fact finding mission. We visited a Women’s Transitional Home called Grounds for Hope. Victims of sexual violence who have been treated at the HEAL Africa Hospital live there as they transition back into village life… They envision developing a literacy program there because this might be the only opportunity these women ever have to learn to read and write. We visited the Mugunga School and found various visions- to create a secondary vocational school, to start an English program, to expand the primary school facilities. Lastly, at the Heal Africa Hospital School we found stakeholders wide open to various possibilities.  These are the projects that, as of now, I think I’ll be working with in some capacity.

A lot of people have been asking, so what are you actually going to DO? What will your first few weeks be like? What do you hope to accomplish this year?

My answers to these questions are as follows:

I’m not really sure.

I have no idea.

and… I’m really not sure.

What I know for sure is this- First and foremost I need to charge ahead in what feels like a constant battle with Francais and on top of that learn Swahili.  I need to really get to know the people of Goma. For the projects I’ll be working on I’ll need to know and understand who the teachers, students, families, administrators, and project directors are, how things work, and who wants what, how, when, why, and figure out how I can help.

There is a big difference, however, in having a plan and knowing what will actually happen. Outside of my language learning and my hopes and my dreams and my curiosities… lies reality. And the reality is- my current focus could change. Beyond education, there is an extensive list of issues that need to be addressed in Congo. In the initial months, more than anything I have to be open and flexible. I’ll need to think long and hard, every single day, about what things I will actually have the power to change. So be prepared to hear from me, and expect the unexpected.  Life in Congo is unpredictable, and although I am passionate about all of these ideas, and my belief in them is what’s bringing me to Eastern Congo… I have to embrace the unexpected.

Lastly, thank you all so much for supporting me. All too often the practicalities are what stand between dreams and reality. Thanks so much to those of you who have already donated. And for those of you who haven’t donated yet… it is still not too late! Thank you all for showing up, for believing in me, encouraging me and for helping to fill in the gap of my financial practicalities. In the end, it is your support that gives me the best chance possible to make these teacher collaboration dreams a reality. Thank you.

This event raised over $8,000.  This means that the total funds raised over the past six months will allow me to live and work in Goma for the whole school year. Woowee!

Also, thanks to the following folks for making this event possible:

Welcome Table

Ruth Brannigan, Sarah Fulwiler (Two ACPS Teachers!! How cool is that!)

Siobhan & Nick Skizim


Various spreads with crackers/bread (Ruth)

Vegetable Platter (Colleen)

Fruit Platter (Sally)

Choc. Chip Walnut Cookies and Balloons (Alex & Shawn)

Brownies and Oatmeal Cookies (Rachel & Pat)

Scones (Stephie & Mike)

1 Case Wine (Jody Manor, Bittersweet)

Drinks (Lonnie & Marcia)

Megg- Video invitation, advertisement

Shawn- Logos on my card, letterhead, and Stitched by Sally

Stitched by Sally… I mean, wow! Amazing stuff mom!

Lastly, thanks to the following special guests:

Friends of the Congo Representative – Christian

Kabahita- Marcia’s Swahili instructor from Eastern Congo thirty years ago, Peace Corps


6 comments on “Bowing Down & Carrying On

  1. Cynthia Powell
    August 10, 2010

    What a special, special evening, Sara. It truly is inspirational to hear about your dreams and visions. And I actually found it humbling and very mature of you to say you are not 100% sure what this project will end up being. That’s the best way of all to approach “helping” anyone, and especially Africans. To watch, listen and learn at first is the ideal approach. I’m honored to know you and look forward to continuing the hear about your journey, in the DRC and beyond.

  2. Margaret Holt Rich
    August 11, 2010

    Nice video Sara Rich!

  3. Nadirah
    August 12, 2010

    Aweeeeeeeesome!!!…so so so so Happy for you!! Hope everything goes well Sara bara…

  4. Jo
    August 12, 2010

    P.D. I am loving this blog!! All of the questions and situations you talk of were deeply discussed by the teachers I was lucky enough to work with last year in Uganda. It is amazing what can be done by a very few motivated people in what sometimes seems like an unchangeable educational system. I’m so excited to hear about your progress! I’m now kicking myself for not taking the time to pick your brain when you were here! Enjoy yourself! Good luck!


  5. janesgirl
    August 25, 2010

    Sara, I love what you’re doing in the congo, I’m so impressed and jealous that you are having these amazing experiences! I also think it’s amazing how much support you have- you deserve it!
    I have to say that I saw the pictures of Alexandria after that crazy storm including one that I stared at for about 15 minutes thinking “Man… that sure does look like Sara’s house… that can’t be Sara’s house… I think that is Sara’s house…” I’m glad everyone was ok!
    Good luck with everything in the congo!!!!
    -Ellen (Ahearn)

    • sararich
      September 16, 2010

      ELLEN!!! I can’t believe you remembered my house! Crazinesssss. I hope all is well with you and your family- please tell them I said hello! Great to hear from you!

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