Rwanda | Global Awareness in Action

Public Health

Join this summer program for high school students for an in-depth examination of public health in Rwanda—a small, lush, mountainous East African nation with a horrific recent history, but a remarkably progressive and positive approach to development. Meet with a local youth group to identify key issues of mutual concern, and investigate the questions you raise throughout your trip as you work alongside community members and meet with regional NGO and government leaders. Immerse yourself in two rural communities to learn first-hand from medical workers with varied approaches to the challenges of providing health services, and visit organizations such as a center for disabled children and clinics for families affected by HIV/AIDS. Discuss your reflections with Rwandan friends, and explore implications for our global community and our own lives. Return with a nuanced understanding of the human, social, economic, and technical issues affecting public health in a developing nation.

June 27, 2015 - July 24, 2015
Students completing grades 9-12
Global Awareness in Action
Typical Group:
15-17 students, 2 leaders
4 week(s)


The public health challenges that Rwanda confronts are entwined with the horrible spasm of violence that occurred during the genocide of 1994. In a three month span, nearly one million people were systematically murdered. Since the horrific genocide 20 years ago, Rwandans have made extraordinary progress in reconciliation, economic development, political stability, and health care, but the effects of the genocide remain pervasive. In this context, we examine the prevention, treatment, and effects of endemic illness and other public health issues common in developing countries. We also confront issues related to the genocide – including the overwhelming number of widows, orphans, and households headed by children.

Upon your arrival in Kigali, check into a simple downtown hotel and spend several days in meetings designed to orient you to the history of Rwanda, the genocide, reconciliation, and health care provision. Meet with representatives of NGOs, Rwandans working on reconciliation, students, orphaned survivors of the genocide, and others who share their perspectives and experiences with you. Take part in a powerful visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a museum dedicated to Rwanda’s tragedy. Collaborate with a local youth group in Kigali to identify key issues that will frame your work in Rwanda. Generate questions which will serve for interviews and focus group discussions in the coming weeks. In addition to our planned visits, we have time to explore the green hills around this bustling city and shop for crafts in its colorful markets.

Volunteer at a local health center.

Volunteer at a local health center.

Next, spend a week in Nyamata, a town 45 minutes south of Kigali in an area of Rwanda that suffers from chronic drought and food shortages. Putney has friendships with a number of private groups working to provide health care in Nyamata, and the district government has enthusiastically endorsed our visit. Each day, divide into small groups to work with a variety of host organizations, such as a Millennium Villages Project program dedicated to the eradication of tropical diseases, and a small home started by local residents who care for severely handicapped youth.

In Nyamata, stay in guest quarters at the regional hospital. Rooms are plain but comfortable, with cement floors and simple bathrooms equipped with standard toilets. We have twin beds and use sleeping bags. We cook meals with a local Rwandan over a charcoal fire and occasionally eat at a restaurant in town.

Then travel to the Rehengeri region in the northwest of Rwanda where we are based in the larger town of Musanze for ten days.  Here, we visit several local organizations working on health care delivery. We also have the unique opportunity to volunteer in a very rural dispensaire (clinic) in a bucolic but isolated and poor village in the hills. In Musanze, we stay in a house rented by Putney, with four or five people to a room. There are beds and mattresses, and again we use sleeping bags. The house has two full bathrooms with standard toilets and simple hot showers. We split into teams to shop for and prepare meals in our home’s kitchen.

“Daniel is talking about NGOs, healthcare, and politics at a whole new level. He immediately called the former student who founded the pen program in order to start that at his school; and is talking about Doctors without Borders, and other NGOs as a possible career path due to this program.”

— Lisa Ostroff and Read DeButts, parents of Daniel DeButts, Yorktown High School, Arlington, VA

To compliment our service work and visits with community stakeholders, we discuss issues of health care policy, funding, and implementation as they relate to organizations such as grassroots cooperatives, large NGOs, and centralized government programs. Throughout the trip, investigate an issue that is important to you, share your observations and questions with your peers, and reflect as a group on our varied experiences to better understand the complexities of Rwanda’s development.

To reflect on our immersion experiences and varied collaborations in Nyamata and Musanze, we spend two days as a group at a cooperative farm and intercultural exchange center in the lush and peaceful Nkotsi valley, at the southern edge of Volcanoes National Park. The mighty mountain range forms a stunning backdrop for our group retreat, and between discussions we explore the extraordinary environment with the help of Rwandan friends. Golden monkeys live in the bamboo forests, as do one of the world’s few remaining populations of mountain gorillas (the subject of Dianne Fossey’s research as chronicled in the movie Gorillas in the Mist). Local guides lead us on a climb through lush rainforest to the rims of ancient volcanoes so that we can see the monkeys up close in their natural habitat.

In the final days of the program, reconvene in Kigali with the local youth group to discuss what you have learned in a forum facilitated by your leaders and local experts. Explore implications for the global community and your own lives.

Upon successful completion of the program, you can expect to receive a certificate for 20-40 hours of community service work.


  • Work with children in a rural home for the disabled.

  • Shadow a health worker in a regional hospital.

  • Meet with survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

  • Visit a Partners in Health clinic (founded by Dr. Paul Farmer of Mountains Beyond Mountains fame).

  • Present your experiences and discuss what you learned in a culminating forum with a local youth group and community leaders.

What to Expect

Students in this extraordinary program must be prepared for exposure to the graphic memorials for people lost to the violence of the genocide, and to the personal stories of genocide survival and reconciliation. You should come to the program with an open-mind, eager for new experiences, and dedicated to tackling the serious issues that face Rwanda.  Living conditions are very simple.

At Putney we take pride in our reputation for careful, thorough planning and attention to detail. The descriptions of our high school summer travel programs are based on our experiences in previous summers and our plans for this summer. It is inevitable that some things described here will not happen exactly as presented. To get the most out of the Putney experience, participants need to be flexible in responding to unforeseen situations, and creative in taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. We expect Putney participants to share responsibility for the success of their experience. Rules that provide a safe and structured environment, set curfews, and prohibit the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco are in place and enforced. We expect you to behave in a mature and productive way at all times.


Tuition: $6,090

Putney organizes escorted international flights. Please consult us for fares.


Learn about last year’s program by reading the 2014 Global Awareness in Action Rwanda Blog.

Departure • Join your group to travel to Rwanda. The group flight departs from JFK International Airport, New York, where you meet one of your leaders and depart as a group to Kigali.

Kigali • Upon arrival in Kigali, check into a simple downtown hotel, and spend three days learning about the history of Rwanda, the genocide, reconciliation, and the state of health care provision today. Meet with a local youth group to identify key issues that will frame your exploration in more rural communities.

“I loved helping at Avayash. I felt like we all really connected with the kids and staff there and that we actually made a lasting difference by building something they could use. I also loved visiting Global Communities. It was really cool to see a well-organized NGO that was truly making a difference in people’s lives.”

— Shoshana Wintman, Williston Northampton School, Longmeadow, MA

Nyamata • Travel to Nyamata, a town 45 minutes south of Kigali, and our home for the next eight days. Stay in guest quarters at the regional hospital, and work alongside members of various organizations focused on health care.

Musanze • Then it’s on to the Ruhengeri region of northwestern Rwanda for ten days in Musanze. Collaborate with a number of organizations working on health care delivery in town. Visit a very rural dispensaire (clinic) in an idyllic, but isolated and poor village in the hills.

Summer High School Volunteer in Rwanda Africa

Getting to know the culture and people you are working with is instrumental to understanding the benefits and drawbacks of various approaches to international aid and development.

Volcanoes National Park • A multi-day Retreat at a cooperative farm and intercultural center at the base of Volcanoes National Park allows you to discuss and reflect on your experience. Venture into the mountains to see wild golden monkeys. Join local guides on a climb through lush rainforest to see the monkeys up close on the rims of extinct volcanoes.

Kigali • Reconvene in Kigali with the local youth group to discuss what you have learned in a forum facilitated by your leaders and local experts. Explore implications for the global community and your own lives.

Head for Home • Fly with your group to JFK International Airport accompanied by one of your group leaders. Continue to your final destination on a connecting flight.

This itinerary represents our best projection of the group’s schedule. However, we may implement changes designed to improve the quality of the program.


Background • In 1994, nearly one million Rwandans were killed by their former friends and neighbors in a span of one hundred days. Since the horrific genocide, this small, mountainous East African nation has made extraordinary progress in reconciliation, economic development, political stability, and provision of health care. During this program we explore Rwanda’s effort to respond to the effect of genocide, to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS, and to address other health care challenges. In 2005, the Boston-based organization Partners in Health, founded by Dr. Paul Farmer (subject of the best-seller Mountains Beyond Mountains), was invited by the government of Rwanda to bring its successful model for AIDS treatment to rural Rwanda. With funding from the Clinton Foundation’s HIV/AIDS Initiative and the efforts of grassroots groups, health care delivery in some of Rwanda’s poorest rural areas has improved dramatically. The people of Rwanda are eager to put their tragic past behind them, to create unity, to heal, and to live healthfully. Our program in Rwanda has three destinations: the capital of Kigali, the southern town of Nyamata, and the northern town of Musanze at the gates of Volcanoes National Park.

Volcano National Park Sunset Rwanda Africa

The sun sets on nearby Volcanoes National Park, home of the famous mountain gorilla.

Population • Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa, with over nine million people. Over a million live in greater Kigali. Nyamata has 7,000 inhabitants, and Ruhengeri has 90,000.

Language • There are three official languages in Rwanda: Kinyarwanda, French, and English. There are many local dialects as well. A knowledge of French is useful on the program, but certainly not required. In the last few years the country has shifted from French to English as the language of instruction in school.

Climate • Rwanda sits near the equator, and the climate is temperate and dry, without great fluctuation. Typical summer temperatures are in the 70s. Nyamata is the driest area of the country and gets a bit hotter, while Musanze is cooler with some moisture drawn in by nearby volcanoes.

“I also feel that due to the connections Putney and my leaders had with Rwanda, I was given the opportunity to form relationships and meet/get to know people intimately, in a way I would not be able to in any other circumstance. In learning from Rwanda, I learned a lot about myself — who and how I want to be and what I want to do, which was one reason why the trip was so rewarding.”

— Michaela Flum, The Northwest School, Seattle, WA

Cuisine • Food in Rwanda is varied, with curries, grilled meat, and plenty of tropical fruit and vegetables. Staples include potatoes, cassava, plantains, and beans. Western influence is also seen in the availability of pastas and cereals.

Currency • Rwanda uses the Rwandan Franc (RWF). We change money in banks in Kigali. ATMs are also available in Kigali.

Experience the majestic wildlife of Rwanda on safari.

Experience the majestic wildlife of Rwanda on safari.

Voltage • Students will have access to electricity in Rwanda. Electric current is 230 volts, and the plugs are European-style with two round pins (Type C), so a plug adapter is necessary, and a voltage converter is required to power some electronic devices.

Visa • U.S. citizens are not currently required to have a visa to enter Rwanda. Non-U.S. citizens must check local visa requirements and are responsible for obtaining the necessary visas for entrance into or transit through any countries visited.


The Global Awareness in Action Rwanda program is directed by Susannah Poland. If you have questions, are interested in receiving more detailed information, or would like to talk further about the program or any of our high school summer programs abroad, please get in touch!

Susannah Poland

Education: Stanford University, B.A. Before joining Putney, Susannah conducted research at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art on emergent African feminisms and contemporary female artists for forthcoming exhibitions. In spring 2013 she took a leave from the museum to conduct fieldwork on Mount Everest, in Nepal, for Umea University School of Business and Economics. She is fluent in French and programs trips in Africa and Europe. Susannah has a particular affection for the French — she lived in France for several summers as an adolescent, practices French cooking with her Francophone mother, and spent last summer apprenticing with beekeepers in the French Alps and southeastern countryside.

How To Apply


If you are new to Putney Student Travel, visit our Online Application.  
If you are a Putney Student Travel alumni family, 
use your existing account information to Log In.


You can hold a space in a program by completing the Online Application Form, submitting a signed Agreement Form, and providing the $700 Application Deposit by Mastercard, Visa, or Discover Card through our secure online system or by sending a check to our office. Our admissions staff is also available to take credit card information over the phone.  We will hold a space in a program for a reasonable time, pending completion of the full application process. See Step 3.

After March 15, we will hold a space temporarily as above, but we must receive full payment by check or wire transfer within three days to continue to hold a space in the program.


Before we can make a final admissions decision, an application must be complete.  In addition to the Application Form and Application Deposit described above, a complete application includes:

  • Applicant Statement – Attach a statement explaining why you would like to join a Putney program and what you feel you can contribute to it. Your application cannot be processed without this statement. Approximately 150–300 words is sufficient. Global Action applicants’ statements must be 300-500 words addressing these questions, and detailing their interest and/or experience in the country and issues on which they wish to focus.
  • Two Teacher Reference Forms

These documents are available as part of our Online Application.  We review a completed application within a few days, and notify families of our admissions decision by e-mail.