The things they learned: Aspiration, uncertainty, and schooling in rural Rwanda

This thesis constitutes an interpretive ethnography of children’s educational experiences in rural Rwanda. It advances a theoretical argument for conceptualizing subjectivity, one which attends to how impersonal forces of political economy and history converge to inform children’s awareness, expectations, and perceptions of possibility. A decade ago, children from poor families in Rwanda had few opportunities to continue their studies beyond primary school. With the government’s recent introduction of basic education, more children now have access to more years in the formal education system—yet, poor education quality and poverty excluded them from meaningful participation within that system. Study findings suggest that children’s schooling functions as a contradictory resource: the same education policy reforms that aim to transform Rwanda into a knowledge-based economy have also introduced the perception of inequalities along the lines of economic status, language, and geographic location. The core of my study included a collaboration with 16 focal students. Their subjective experiences were the microcosm through which I investigated the nexus of individual and collective processes. Students grappled with what value their education had, what status it would confer, and whether it would lead to opportunities for social mobility. However, in absence of alternatives, most felt obliged to continue their studies—even as their educational experience produced a growing sense of disillusionment.

Timothy P. Williams