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The opening act is a poem, delivered in the traditional staccato style. Angelique, 6, is already a skillful orator, standing confidently before the large, silent crowd as her voice rings out clearly:
"I am sad, but why am I sad? Let me tell you why,
I don't play, I don't go to school, I don't see my friends"
She goes on imploring her parents to let her go back to school and finish her education. "I am worth more as an educated girl!," she declares at the end.
The student audience claps and cheers as she leaves the stage. Her recital is followed by a play entitled "Tell the Parents." The cast of children is in full costume and soon have the crowd laughing at the antics of a greedy couple who force their children to work in the fields at the expense of their education. Eventually, the couple are persuaded by a teacher who visits their home that children belong in classrooms and not in the fields. They relent and in a short monologue during the finale, the 'father' resolves to change his attitude towards education.
The Leadership Club, which has put on the performance, takes a bow and the members introduce themselves to the appreciative crowd. As they take turns to speak into the microphone, each child says their name, class and a brief explanation of their role in the play. The crowd favorite is clearly 11-year old Elisa, who played the father. A natural-born comic, he elicits more laughs from the audience as he introduces himself.
This is a familiar activity at Mukondo Primary School, in Rubavu, Rwanda, where the Leadership Club regularly entertains the rest of the school with poetry, music and drama. They have become so popular that they have also performed for the rest of the community including parents, local leaders and even the Mayor.
With 50 members, 33 of whom are girls, the Leadership Club holds weekly meetings to set an agenda for their activities. They are more than a performing troupe and take their primary role as advocates for children's rights very seriously. They have learnt that life imitates art and use their theater performances to address the social issues plaguing their community.
In the hills of Mukondo, education often takes a backseat to economic survival and most adults are more concerned with earning an income. Using their family members, including children, as part of the labor force, parents eke out a living on tea plantations and in brick making. The result is that many children in the area miss school or drop out entirely.
In 2016, when the Leadership Club at Mukondo was initiated by Right To Play, teachers and children received training in Child Rights and Child Protection; as well, a School Committee was set up consisting of students, teachers, parents and community members, with the mandate to tackle the problem of school drop outs. The Leadership Club, supported by the School Committee, identifies and visits homes where children have missed school.
According to the Head Teacher at Mukondo, Emmanuel, the Leadership Club is directly responsible for returning 38 children back to school since September 2016, sometimes at the rate of three a week.
"Our students are so good at community mobilization; they understand that parents are the root of the problem and they talk to them until they relent", he said. The School Committee, with law enforcement, only intervenes if the parents refuse to cooperate.
Georgette, 49, supports the Leadership Club, organizing the meetings, helping the children write their scripts and poems and by providing overall guidance. She explains that "the Club members work in teams of six or seven and make several home visits. They talk to the parents on behalf of the children who are absent from school and persuade them to let their children get an education."
The Leadership Club has also built a peer to peer advocacy platform at school, mostly through their theatrical performances. After each presentation at school, they ask their audience questions like, "which part did you enjoy the most and why?" and "what did you learn?" The audience takes part in a discussion about "What are we going to do from now on?" exploring collective approaches to get children out of work and back to school. As a result, all of the children are aware of their right to education and are on lookout for one another.
Innocent, 12, is the President of the Leadership Club and says he didn't know much about children's rights until Right To Play came to their school. "Now I am sure that I can reach my goal of being a pilot in the future; I have learnt to take care of other children, to support each other and to be disciplined."
The Leadership Club initiative has been adopted in all of the 64 schools in Rwanda where Right To Play works. The members are taught about Child Rights and Child Protection, gender equality and inclusiveness. Using debates, discussions and other activities, Leadership Clubs empower children with a sense of responsibility towards their peers, respect for each other, camaraderie and the confidence to speak out when they see abuses.
For 12-year old Nusura, the Leadership Club helped her to realize that children can make a difference. "I used to miss school to help my mother with chores, until my friends told her it was wrong. She was surprised, but she listened to them. I feel good because they changed her."