The futures of the students and the chimpanzees are closely tied, according to Dr. Benjamin Beck, director of conservation at Great Ape Trust, a partner with Earthpark and the Rwandan government in the Gishwati Area Conservation Program, an ambitious reforestation project and ecological research effort in what was once Rwanda's second-largest forest.
once extended 1,000 square kilometers (approximately a quarter of a million acres, or 100,000 hectacres), but was reduced to about one-fourth that size by the late 1980s due to human encroachment, deforestation and small-scale farming.
Further encroachment resulted with the resettlement of refugees after the civil war and genocide of the mid-1990s.
The Gishwati program's aim is to protect and preserve the forest resources and, thus, the chimpanzees, now numbering 14, living there, as well as provide for sustainable use by the people living near the forest's edge.
"We cannot save the chimpanzees and their habitat without also helping the local people living near the forests," Beck
has become a heroine, a role model, and some of the students have said they want to be her
Located near the equator, Rwanda is "breathtakingly beautiful," Beck
The Gishwati Forest yields views of Lake Kivu, one of Great Lakes of Africa and the largest of numerous freshwater bodies in the valleys of Rwanda, and the mountains of Democratic Republic of Congo.
The school's needs - modest by American standards - include creating 12 classrooms in the long, narrow building housing the 650 Kinihira Primary School students, building two blocks of bathrooms, installing two rainwater collection systems, and developing one basketball and one volleyball playground.
Equipment needs include 350 desks for students and 18 tables for teachers.
Meeting the needs will cost about $250,000, expenses that were neither anticipated nor budgeted, Beck
Great Ape Trust
is seeking partners to assist in the school project.
The Ankeny students wrote a letter to the Kinihira students that Beck and Ted Townsend, founder of Great Ape Trust and Earthpark, also a partner along with the Rwandan government in the Gishwati Area Conservation Program, hand-delivered during a recent two-week trip to Rwanda to further the project's goals.
and Townsend brought back to Iowa letters to the Ankeny students and teachers expressing interest in solidifying the bonds of an international friendship.
In discussing the differences, "the students just focused on the similarities in their lives and read about each other with interest and fascination," Beck
"It's easy for adults to make more of the dramatic cultural contrasts than the kids do.
For them, it's kids communicating with kids, with no value judgments or aspirations to become westernized."
The relationship between the schools in Iowa and Rwanda is still informal, but Beck
said there are many similarities that make a formal friendship between the schools possibility.
Rwanda has adopted English as its official language, and the students speak English in the classroom and elsewhere, except for some use of the mother tongue, Kinya Rwanda, in casual conversations.
The students are in class for 10 and one-half hours each day, Monday through Friday.
"The big question is," Beck
said, "where do we go from here?"