Learning Through Service: Women's Soccer's Journey Through Rwanda

Three members of the Penn Women’s Soccer team are currently abroad with the 2017 Rwanda Gashora Program, a service learning course through Penn Engineering. For the next 18 days, Kristen Miller, Erica Higa, and Kiera Towell will be working in collaboration with their Penn Engineering team and the Gashora Girls Academy of Science and Technology (GGAST) to bring solar energy and information communication technology projects to life in Gashora, Rwanda (Africa).

Kiera Towell, a goalkeeper for Penn Women’s Soccer, is a rising junior from Edmonds, Washington studying Materials Science and Engineering. This is her first time traveling to Rwanda and she is very excited about meeting and working with the girls from GGAST and seeing the sights and culture of Rwanda.

Kristen Miller, rising senior and forward for Penn Women’s Soccer, studies Biological Basis of Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences. This is her first out of country experience! She is looking forward to seeing a new country, making new friends from GGAST, and learning some engineering while serving the community of Gashora.

Erica Higa, a forward/midfielder for Penn Women’s Soccer, is a rising senior from Los Altos, California studying Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. She traveled to Gashora with the 2016 Rwanda Gashora Program and is returning this year as the Student Leader. She is incredibly excited to see the friends she made last year and continue to learn hands on engineering practices through service!

Princess Aghayere, a member of Penn Women’s Basketball, is also a part of the Penn Engineering team in Gashora, Rwanda.

These members of Penn Athletics will be chronicling their journey with a daily blog.


We have arrived!! After 22 hours of flying from Philadelphia to Doha, Qatar to Kigali, Rwanda we drove for an hour and a half to Gashora, Rwanda, where we will be spending the next 18 days!

First impressions:

Kristen screamed and ran out of her bathroom at the hotel after seeing a pink salamander. Turns out they’re great for keeping the mosquitos away – she loves them now!

Erica’s sweet tooth got the best of her – she tried to buy some “andazii,” or Rwandan pancake-like dough balls, but she accidentally bought meatballs. Guess she’ll have to work on her Kinyarwanda, the local language!

Kiera got her coffee fix with “African Coffee,” which turns out to be ginger with a splash of mocha. Good thing she likes ginger!

Tomorrow we will be exploring the local schools and the Gashora Health Center to survey the sites where we will be working on multiple engineering projects. This includes the clean water pipeline from Lake Rumira to the Health Center.

Read more here and here.


Today we got a snapshot of all the places we will be working at for the next 17 days.

First, we went to the Gashora Health Center where we got to see the progress of the water pipeline. When we entered, the clinic was full of people with their jerrycans of water. We learned that because the clinic does not have access to water year-round they require patients to bring their own jerrycan of water in order to receive treatment. This means that the patients must walk about ¾ of a mile to get to the lake and fill the can, and then walk back—uphill—while sick. This motivated us even more to finish the project.

Next, we made our first visit to GGAST to meet the 22 girls that will be working with us. We got to know them over their typical lunch of rice, meat, and potatoes. Yum!

After lunch we visited the three local primary schools to evaluate their needs and plan out how we can help. It was humbling to see how well these schools function with up to 4,000 students, about 40 teachers, no electricity, and no water. As we drove up to the schools the students rushed to come see us and started saying all of the English phrases that they had learned. We were happy to see the red and blue poles of the volleyball net that was brought last year by former volleyball coach Kerry Carr.

Tomorrow we get to start working on the water project at the Health Center bright and early!


It’s been a long couple of days full of hard work and fun!

Our team spent Friday and Saturday laying nearly 1.6km of piping down from Lake Rumira to the Gashora Health Center. It was a community-wide effort! Gashora men often started working before dawn, taking the lead on connecting the pipes, while our Penn Engineering team was joined by tons of local children who helped us carry the pipes. In just two days, we’ve nearly completed laying the pipeline. This week we look forward to installing the solar panels, pump, and storage tank and seeing some flowing water!

Sunday was spent at Akagera National Park, on the northeastern border of Rwanda. We got to see zebras, giraffes, antelope, hundreds of species of birds, crocodiles, hippos, monkeys and more! Furthermore, we learned that the park today is 1/3 the size of what it used to be. Leading up to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis, thousands of Rwandans left the country in search of safety. When they returned, the government of Rwanda divided the park into farmlands, providing private property for the refugees. This is an incredible gesture of recognizing basic human rights, and we hope that the world can learn from Rwanda’s example.

That’s a #WRAAP for our first week here. We look forward to another two weeks in Rwanda!


Making more and more progress each day! We spent Monday and Tuesday morning at the Gashora Health Center continuing the pipeline project. On Monday morning, we rolled the storage tank over to its platform and discovered it had some large dents.. How to problem solve? Throw Erica in there and roll it like a hamster wheel! Helps to be small!  As of now, all of the pipes are in the trench and covered; tomorrow we will install the pump and solar panel and test the system for flowing water! It’s amazing how much has been achieved in just four days of work. All credit goes to the Gashora community for their hard work, diligence, and guidance. Akazikeza!! // Good job!!

We have also had the chance to spend a lot more time at the Gashora Girls Academy lately. We’ve been able to work in small groups on engineering and computer science projects that the girls requested of us. Kiera is doing a great job of working with them on a robotic car project, using a Raspberry Pi computer processing unit and Python coding – check out her picture! After classes and projects, we unwound with some SOCCER! The Gashora Girls had an inter-dorm competition, and the crowd was going nuts! The support and comradery between the girls is incredible and so much fun to be a part of. After their game, we got a chance to play in a scrimmage with the teachers. Kristen scored the first goal, but Erica’s team ended up winning the game!

Looking forward to another busy day ahead!


Quick update on the pipeline: we helped put in the solar panels this morning. Only a few work days away from running water – stay tuned!

We had the chance to work alongside our small groups of Gashora girls this afternoon on our respective Raspberry Pi projects. This was a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved to apply theory from the classroom towards hands-on learning. The girls learned quickly, asked thoughtful questions, and suggested very creative ideas for how to build on the projects we had planned. Together, we built circuits, learned the Python programming language, and laughed a lot!

For dinner, we had the long-awaited local chicken. It was delicious! Much leaner than anything in the US – truly “free range.” During our trip thus far, we have also been able to try foods such as local goat, plantains, tree tomato (a fruit that is very different than a vine tomato – Kristen’s favorite!), passion fruit, fresh bananas, and cassava leaf stew.

It’s always sunny in Gashora! Never a dull moment over here!

DAY 11

The last few days have been full of learning about the past and future of Rwanda. On Friday morning, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. A tour guide took us through the museum, beginning with what the country was like prior to Belgian colonization in 1916. The country was united as one people with one language, but when the western colonizers came in, they brought the culture of hierarchy and racism. We encourage everyone to learn more about the divisions in Rwandan society that were systematically built up over the course of multiple decades, and ultimately led to the deaths of nearly one million people in one hundred days. The only way to ensure that these horrific tragedies never happen again is by educating ourselves and our future generations. We walked away from the memorial with sadness and empathy, but also empowerment and inspiration to lead the effort in sharing the stories of those affected. Learn more here: http://www.kgm.rw/

Additionally, we visited the Gashora Memorial Site, which is smaller than Kigali’s Center, but a more personal experience. We joined the Gashora community, which we have been working side-by-side with for the past week and half, in Kwibuka 23, a remembrance of the Genocide that happened 23 years ago. Personal testimonies were shared, heroes were recognized, and survivors were honored and gifted with cows, mattresses, rice, etc by their community. It is truly humbling to see a community that was once so torn come together with forgiveness and commitment to restoring one Rwandese nation. Notably, they favor the Gacaca court system, which brings victims and perpetrators together to ask and grant forgiveness in their own space, avoiding the need for imprisonment and further suffering.

As the nation continues to heal, some incredible organizations and traditions have come to life. In 2007, the late Anne Heyman, Penn Class of 1982, founded Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village to help address the post-Genocide orphan population. The campus fosters family-style living, empowerment (“If you see far, you will go far”), and sustainability. 128 new students are brought in from all over Rwanda each year for four years of healing and growing alongside new brothers, sisters, cousins, and Mama’s (who are often post-Genocide widowed women). We toured the campus, met some students, and left feeling hopeful for the future generations here. Additionally, we partook in Umuganda, which means ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome.’ While the idea has been around for centuries, modern-Umuganda, a monthly community service day required of all Rwandan citizens, has been in place since 2007. This one day of working together has made a tremendous impact on the country’s development. Learn more here: http://www.rwandapedia.rw/explore/umuganda

Over the past few days we have visited many places that each share the same vision for a united and peaceful Rwanda. We look forward to returning soon and seeing this vision come to fruition.

DAY 13

Yesterday we visited Mwendo Primary School; part of the team worked on upgrading their RACHEL (Remote Access Community Hotspot for Educational Learning), Internet-in-a-Box, and router systems that were installed last year, while the rest of the team played sports with the kids! Kristen made especially good friends with a young teenage boy named Jean-Claude. He had a killer spike – must’ve been that extra training from Coach Carr last year!! Teachers also joined in over the red and blue net. It’s amazing how a game of volleyball (and all sports, for that matter) can bridge cultural and language barriers so quickly. We look forward to having some fun at two more local schools later this week.

Quick update on the water pipeline – we have moving water! The pump is working, although there are still some engineering kinks to smooth out before the system is complete.

We spent the whole day in Kigali today running errands, being tourists, and meeting with Eric Kimenyi, National Coordinator for One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), Rwanda Education Board. Eric told us all about his team’s primary teacher ICT training program throughout the country; we told him about our efforts of installing RACHEL as an offline educational resource library that the OLPCs can connect to (Read more about OLPCs at http://one.laptop.org/ ). There is still a lot to be done in Rwanda’s education system, especially with the recent national language change from French to English, but it is getting better each day with leaders like Eric. Additionally, as tourists we practiced the art of bargaining in Kimironko, Kigali’s open-air market. Goal: bring the price down at least 50%. Typical outcome: about 30%... We got better with practice, Erica even got a haircut in town – check “barbershop in Africa” off the bucket list!

DAY 15

In our final days here, we made an effort to visit each site that we had done work at over the last two and a half weeks. In addition to the Health Center and GGAST, we visited Mwendo school, Gashora Primary, and G.S. Dihiro School where we took preliminary assessments for next year's projects and areas of need, finished implementing the RACHEL offline educational units, and played sports with the kids. Volleyball was a popular choice as each school has its own court (thanks to Kerry Carr's generosity last year!). We were happy to see both soccer and volleyballs from last year's trip being played with all over campus.

Erica found her friend, Everest, from last year. He recognized her but was too shy to say hello. Check out the picture of them!

Kristen started running with a soccer ball and found herself being chased by 200 smiling kids. Football is a favorite in Rwanda :)

Kiera showed the kids how to dribble a basketball, and the game turned quickly into a game of keep away. Princess showed them some special tricks too, which they loved and tried to replicate.

It was an afternoon of smiles fueled by sports!

Final Reflections:

All three of us have begun summer jobs and training for the upcoming season with Penn Women’s Soccer. Our minds, however, are still constantly dreaming about Rwanda.

Before reflecting on our experiences, we want to say thank you to everyone involved in this partnership. Penn Engineering for their support and backing of this program for three years now, which has given approximately 30 Penn students the ability to immerse ourselves in Rwanda. Gashora Girls Academy, for being an incredible partner, host, and friend to Penn. Dr. Ocek Eke, Director of Global Initiatives at Penn Engineering, and our professors, Dr. Jorge Santiago and Dr. Gerri Light, for working hard throughout the year to make this program a success. Friends, family, and outside supporters that contributed to our GoFundMe campaign over the past year to bring the Water Pipeline project to life. Our classmates, Arryonna, Andrew, Maddie, Eddie, Dayo, Clint and Princess, for their friendship and memories throughout this journey. Our parents for supporting us in our participation in this program. The Gashora girls for their warm welcomes and friendship; we can’t express enough how much we truly love the friends that we have made at GGAST and how much we miss them now. And the Penn Women’s Soccer staff and Penn Athletics media for giving us the opportunity to share our experience with this greater audience. To the readers – we hope we have convinced you to visit Rwanda!

Here are our individual reflections from the time we spent in Gashora, Rwanda.


Travelling to Rwanda was a great experience for me because I went to a place far from home and experienced a completely different culture from anything I have ever known. The people we met there were extremely nice, gracious, and welcoming.

What I appreciated most about Rwanda, however, wasn't the affection shown by the people, but rather the unique sense of patriotism and overall desire to better the community, the country, and Africa as a whole. It was amazing to see the same pride I have in being a Quaker and wearing the Penn jersey expressed by an entire community in their commitment to improving their country.

The most inspiring moment for me was a conversation I had with one of the girls at GGAST. Having never met before, she came up to me and started asking me about myself and why our group came to Rwanda. When I asked her what she wanted to study, she said agriculture. I was kind of ambivalent at first, thinking agriculture isn't my thing, but it's cool someone else is interested in it, but then she explained why. She said she wanted to study agriculture not just because it seemed "cool" to her, but because she thought it was something that her country needed because, while there are lots of farmers in Rwanda, there aren't many people who understand the science of farming. She wants to study agriculture because she thinks that her country, and the farmers there, would benefit from having more people study agriculture. I am so impressed by the commitment and hard work expressed by the people to develop their country in areas that need it most.

 In Rwanda it seems like everyone is always trying to do something to improve the community and the country. While we were there we saw the Gashora community working on an impressive stone and concrete drain to run along the road; in Nyamata there were people working on a very nice paved stone sidewalk all the way into Kigali; and in Kigali there were men painting the words "school zone" on the street. The work that these men were putting in to improve the community reminds me of the things we do as members of PWS to be the best team we can be. The vision of seeing our team succeed together makes the early mornings, tons of gear, and tiring fitness that much more rewarding. However, while these men work tirelessly to feed their families and better their community, the hard work we put in at Penn is a privilege that we are lucky to have.

With all of the development in Rwanda and with all the people driving it forward, I am looking forward to seeing how Rwanda continues to advance, hopefully in person again someday.



It's hard to leave a place that you've only just begun to fall in love with. After 18 short days, I completely understand why Erica wanted to return to Rwanda. I now share the same feelings.

Leaving the country for the first time to go to Africa felt huge for me. Unlike teammates who have traveled from the west coast or as far as England, I chose to stay near home and my family. I had my own set of worries and concerns as I left my comfortable life in Philadelphia. Despite this, I knew I was going to do something bigger than myself that was important and necessary. Working alongside Gashora's community members was so impressive. The men and women of the community had a work ethic like I've never seen. The kids always wanted to help, too. I will never forget carrying the pipes down to the lake, with little hands filling in between team members to help bear the weight of the heavy pipes. These kids are already exemplifying leadership and teamwork, characteristics we take pride in at Penn and especially in athletics. This ownership and responsibility within the Gashora community was essential in completing the project and was inspiring as two groups with different languages and cultures worked together as one. Leaving the country was huge, but working as a team to bring water to the Gashora Health Center was even bigger.

The friendships that I made with my RGP teammates and the girls of GGAST made my experience even more special. The team embraced the theme of flexibility and accomplished so much in a short period of time. We saw new things and shared many laughs together during this experience. I am happy to say that I have nine new Penn friends and I am grateful for the experiences that I shared with each of them. The girls of GGAST were one of the highlights of this trip and one of the main reasons why I hope to return to Rwanda soon. They welcomed us from the beginning, showed a great commitment for learning, and showed me the importance of embracing and celebrating who you are. The last time I felt this warmly welcomed and excited to grow was reporting for preseason camp with my new teammates freshman year. The pride that the Gashora Girls have in their school, in their country, and in being an African woman inspired me to be even more proud as a woman representing my school and Penn Women’s Soccer. I was moved to speak and, on a dare, sing in front of the whole school, on multiple occasions. Red faced and all, they cheered and made me feel so welcome (Allie Trzaska, I’m ready for a duet of “If I were a Boy”). I will continue to nurture these friendships for a long time and I look forward to seeing my Gashora girls again.

All in all, my experience in Rwanda was life changing and I feel that I have grown in many ways. I am grateful to have learned about a new country, its history, culture, and traditions. I met some amazing people who I will continue to be in touch with for a long time. Most of all, I've gained a new perspective and greater appreciation for life and the world. A country once divided and devastated by genocide has been able to pick up its pieces and unify as one. I am honored to have visited Rwanda, learned its story, and met its people. I will continue to share my experiences with everyone that I can, so that they, too, can learn about the amazing country that is Rwanda.

Until next time, Rwanda. I'll see you soon!



One month later and I still wake up every morning hoping I am there. I have found another home, which I know I will return to soon enough.

I am so incredibly proud of the Penn Engineering team this year, both for what we were able to accomplish and for the courage every one of our members took to open up their minds and hearts to the full experience. Our brief time in Rwanda felt like preseason with PWS - too short, very early mornings, lots of hard work, and tons of fun together as a team! We completed a water pipeline that will provide a constant water supply to the Gashora community, reducing the need for mile-long journeys every day to fetch dirty water from the lake. And more importantly, we did this alongside community members and Gashora girls who will own, maintain, and have the skillsets to fix it should anything go wrong. We taught the Gashora girls how to use and write code on Raspberry Pi computer modules, which they have already started to use for various projects around their campus. We updated RACHEL+ equipment at the schools, providing greater access to knowledge and academia for hundreds of students. We played soccer, volleyball, and basketball with the kids at nearby schools, quickly bridging barriers via the universal language of sport. Thank you, PWS, for allowing me to continue to learn and practice this beautiful language. :)

18 days isn’t enough. It’s not enough to know the ins and outs of a culture or a country. It’s not enough time spent with true friends. It’s just barely enough time to implement projects and provide necessary training so that they can be sustained over time by the local community.  But 18 days is enough to fall in love with Rwanda. 18 days is enough to start lifelong friendships, friendships that I know will last in tandem with those I’ll have with my PWS teammates. The first time I went to Rwanda in 2016, it took me all of two days to know that going there was not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but rather, it was the first of many trips that I would take to this country. The second time around, I know that I will return to Gashora again, soon, and stay for a longer period of time. For Rwanda, it will never be a “goodbye,” only a “see you later!”

My lesson learned: It is a privilege where we are born; it is a privilege that we are given life, at all. It is our choice as to how we spend our time when we are here. Where will you go? Who will you support? Who will be your teammates in the game of life?