Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love, of passion, and of commitment. This year I celebrated Valentine’s Day surrounded by all of these things and by something that truly makes my heart happy – The Agahozo-Shalom Debate Team at their first tournament of the year.
iDebate is a local nonprofit that runs the Kigali Debate League, which Agahozo-Shalom is a member of. It was founded in 2013 by a group mostly of previous Rwandan high school debaters who thought that there should be a more formal forum for debate in their country. What has developed from that in the past two years is truly incredible. This first tournament had 42 teams from across Rwanda (largely the Kigali area) who came together to debate in the World School Style of Debate (3 vs. 3 debate). The motion for the debates this year for the Kigali Debate League is as follows: “The government of Rwanda should adopt the East African treaty by establishing a common market, a monetary union, and a political federation of East Africa.”
As the school year only started three weeks ago, the debate team only had one week to prepare. This meant understanding the complexities of the topic, researching and reading articles, preparing their cases, etc. It meant many late nights and long days of meetings and work as well as garnering help from outside sources including Jesh, one of the co-founders of iDebate who comes to the village to coach the kids and Eric, Director of Operations here at ASYV and coincidently did his Business Law Master’s thesis on regional integration in East Africa (basically exactly the topic).
We brought 3 teams to the tournament, one team of novice debaters from the Enrichment Year, and two teams of experienced debaters, as well as a number of other kids from the debate team to watch and learn from the experience. One of the teams broke to quarter-finals (top 8) after winning all 3 of their first rounds and having high speaker points… then semi-finals… then finals! Watching each of their out-rounds was one of the most stressful experiences for me – I found myself feeling like an over-involved soccer mom, feeling more anxiety waiting for the results and arguably as much joy as the kids with each win.
For the finals, the Agahozo team consisting of Maxime and Bonfils from Senior 6 and Ornella from Senior 5 was up against Gashora Girls Academy (the school that took first place in Rwanda last year, and had half of the teams in quarter-finals at this tournament). The whole tournament watched as Agahozo and Gashora debated in an impressive final round. Bonfils spoke with composure and strong evidence. Maxime debated with passion and striking rebuttles. Ornella orated with conviction and comprehensive arguments.
It was a 4-1 decision – Agahozo-Shalom won. As the decision was announced, everyone rose to their feet with excitement, hugging one another, shaking hands, giving high-fives, and cheering with pure euphoria.
A year and a half ago, Agahozo-Shalom was just starting their debate team, spearheaded by Frank and Maxime. They were learning what debate was, and teaching themselves the skills. Back then, they would lose every round. Jean Michael reminisced that a team would hear they were against Agahozo, and would be relieved as it would be a sure win for them. Now, these kids are incredible.
I am so thankful that iDebate exists. Just as speech and debate was transformative to me in my high school experience, I see it as the same for these kids. Not only the life-long skills, but the passion and commitment, the experiences and opportunities. Some of the enrichment year kids remarked that they need to work on their English, and that they really want to be leaders and aspire to be like some of the older kids on the team.
After the awards ceremony, a girl from another school came up to me and asked how she could get into Liquidnet Family High School at Agahozo Shalom. I explained to her that it is not like other schools. Many of the other teams we compete against are private schools that are very expensive, or that only give a few scholarships to students. For Agahozo, students are identified by their district in senior 3 as being among the most vulnerable (having lost one or both parents, and also fitting other criteria for vulnerability depending on their situation), then undergo the ASYV recruitment process (which includes visits to meet the students at their schools and in their homes before 4 from each district are selected). Our students have made such an impression on her, that she wants to be like them. It’s truly amazing.
Maxime, Bonfils, and Ornella let other team members wear their medals and hold their trophy for the rest of the evening and in the pictures, because it did not matter if a student competed and lost, or was just at the tournament to watch. We are one Agahozo, and a victory for one group of us is a victory for us as a team. For me it was a special experience, as it was one of the first times that I truly felt a part of Agahozo, and not as one of the “cousins” who is somewhat of an outsider. In all of the moments of excitement, anxiety, and joy of the day, I forgot that I was not from the same country as these kids, and instead, we were all so united. That is the magic of this place, and this experience.
The bus drive home was filled with so much happiness, singing and chatting. I smiled as I looked around at the 25 kids who surrounded me, all who love debate, singing aloud to the songs playing from the speakers.
As we turned off the dirt road through the main gates of Agahozo-Shalom, “If you see far, you will go far,” Ornella changed the song, and everyone in the van started clapping and cheering. We drove past the dining hall just as the other students were leaving. Instead of stopping, the driver of the van sped up and continued down the road for a victory lap around campus – down past the basketball courts, past the mango tree and administration buildings, while the kids cheered and laughed and sang with genuine pride and joy. It was not just a win for Maxime, Bonfils, and Ornella, but a win for Agahozo-Shalom, because together, we are one.