As co-founder of iDebate Rwanda, a local NGO that boosts learners’ critical thinking and public speaking skills through debate, Jean Michel Habineza seeks to help the youth find confidence in speaking, take part in debates, develop a culture of reading, and mostly, represent Rwanda around the world.After pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in international relations, and a Master’s in social entrepreneurship, Habineza embarked on a journey to empower the youth.“At university I was in a debate programme which offered training as a means of teaching students to voice their opinions in society that often silenced them. I started dreaming about doing the same thing in Rwanda,” Habineza was quoted in an old interview.
Habineza worked at the Kigali Genocide Memorial for a number of years as a volunteer with the youth programme. He says that reading is a passion, but he is also an educator with a zeal for peace-building. “I would say that my life’s question is, how do we live together?” he says.
After completing secondary school in Rwanda, Habineza got a debate scholarship to study in the US at the University of Baltimore. While there, he volunteered at The Baltimore Urban Debate League, a non-profit, urban debate league that aims to educate and mentor inner city middle school and high school students in the Baltimore, Maryland area. The main focus of the organisation is to teach students policy debate.
“The club picked kids from really poor backgrounds, which you could refer to as ‘the ghetto’. These kids were coached on how to make arguments, speak for themselves and be confident.
“It was impressive because they were skilled and yet had not acquired the best education. This changed the mind-set that debates were for law students or those that attended great schools,” he says.
Whenever he came back to Rwanda for holiday, Habineza trained some students, he later developed a burning desire to start a platform where learners would acquire skills in debating.
In 2012, with two friends, they put the idea into action. “We thought, what if we build a programme where young people can be trained to be articulate, do research, and present arguments for themselves? So, we started in 2012 and one of the things I can tell you is that it was definitely harder than we thought. But we started anyway and are slowly developing,” he says.
Habineza explains that iDebate has various programmes, but the core is to teach students the art of debate, because this, he says, isn’t like arguing, or fighting, but constructing a sensible and valuable opinion, with evidence and facts.
The public-speaking coach says that learners are also taught to communicate and present whatever they believe in.
He says that learners are also enlightened on government policies, after which they craft and present what might be seen as a policy brief, or debate about a policy. With that, he says, weekly trainings are conducted with the students.
There is also a Debate League where learners participate in monthly inter-school competitions, he adds.
According to him, iDebate is so far in 35 schools, mainly in Kigali, but starting September when the new school system opens, the platform organisers will be expected to work with 115 schools.
This will also benefit other learners outside Kigali, like in Eastern Province, with a plan that within the next five years, the programme is expected to be in at least 400 schools all over the country.
Habineza says iDebate also has another league at the East African level, where the best students in Rwanda are taken to compete against the best students in Uganda and Kenya. “Those are the two countries that we have worked with in the EA region for now, but we are planning to bring Tanzania on board as well.”
Students are also prepped in public policy and have classes in finance, among other interesting topics.
Habineza and his team take about five students on a two-to-three-month tour in the US where they debate against some of the best universities there. Currently, he says, they have had debates with about 16 universities, including some top-notch like Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Yale.
Youth are also enlightened on Rwanda’s history, and during the 20th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the team shared Rwanda’s story with foreign colleagues. Over the last seven years, they have spoken to more than 50,000 people.
The NGO has also introduced a new programme to work with teachers, because one of the things that they noticed was, however great a student is, if they don’t have a teacher who lets them ask questions, it’s of no use.
“The education system is set up in such a way that a good student is one who memorises well, is obedient, doesn’t cause chaos, and doesn’t ask questions. With this mentality, we are creating people who are never going to invent anything,” he notes.
Challenges and way forward
Habineza, who is also the executive director of iDebate, highlights that one of the greatest challenges the NGO encounters is that learners don’t read much, and to him, regardless of how brilliant students are, especially in debate, without reading, they can’t dig deeper into any argument because they lack proof.
He points out that some of the accomplishments of the NGO over the last nine years, include grooming comfortable speakers. However much they are thrilled with great public speaking skills, Habineza says that learners ought to reason with supported evidence from research. This is because when they compete with other speakers, their argument is still a bit shallow.
He believes that learners should have various skills, on top of the knowledge gained in school, because academic excellence isn’t the only thing that matters.
Habineza hopes to start a debate programme in every school in Rwanda in the next 10 years and is having discussions with the Ministry of Education regarding this.
“There’s a class, General Paper and Communication Studies, which every student should take. We are trying to see, with different partners around the world, if there is a way that we can take that class, and then introduce some elements of debate in it as we wait for the learners’ output,” he says.
He adds that if there is a way that they can actually introduce the programme and also train the teachers on how to use that instruction, they believe that it will be a good way to get more students on-board.
Habineza notes that investing in young people has great returns, he is certain that everybody believes that but very few people actually do it right.