Erik sat on the plastic chair and looked deep into my translator’s eyes. Late afternoon light brightens every detail of his face, lost somewhere in the shadows of this tiny, little room.
Erik NYANKURU is just ten years old, but the way he looks at me is so mature that he could be one of us. A life’s worth of struggle and sadness condensed into a short, ten year life.
He was born in Gitarama, in south-west Rwanda.
It all began when he was seven. His mother had AIDS. Apparently she had an affair with a neighbor who passed the disease to her. When his father, Maurice Niyonkuru, found out about her sickness and about her lover he decided to kill the man – Erik doesn’t remember his name. Maurice had a very bad reputation in the area. He was ruthless and he liked to fight. His mother’s lover was afraid for his own life and finally left to Uganda.
Every day Erik was getting up very early to take care of his mother, washing and feeding her even when she was screaming in unbelievable pain.
She was the one who he remembers the most. She was always with him and his two older brothers when he was younger. She played with them, she taught him how to read and write, because they couldn’t afford to go to school.
One night he had a dream about his beloved mother. She was lying in her room screaming, coughing and calling his name but every time when he reached her she was dead. He woke up all of the sudden and ran to her bed. She was still breathing. Next day she seemed to feel better and hopeful, but soon after she seemingly gave up her fight with the disease. Erik believes she was waiting for the angels from heaven. She didn’t wait long.
After her death Maurice, Erik’s father, was accused of participating in the genocide by a Gacaca, the traditional community court of Rwanda. The tribal court issued a sentence of 15 years in prison for him. He was found responsible for many deaths and convicted as being one of the most enthusiastic killers.
Erik decided to leave Gitarama along with his neighbor Charles to Kigali. His older brothers stayed at home and since that day he has never seen or spoken to them. He was too busy taking care of himself.
His first week in the Rwandan capital was spent with Charlie’s family, but after that they told him to leave. He had no place to go, no place to hide and no one to talk to. He sold all his clothes, covering himself only with an old, dirty rug. He spent all his money on food.
Very quickly he became friends with Jean-Paul, a boy at the same age, who was very experienced in living on the street. He belonged to a group of young boys and Erik was very happy to join them.
They were trying to forget about the misery of their lives, and very easily did so with easy access to alcohol, cigarettes and drugs (he often inhaled the fumes of diesel engines). They were stealing charcoal from people’s houses and they were trying to sell it for any price. Soon they got into trouble with the police. They were arrested, but Jean-Paul, Erik and three more boys were able to escape from the police truck.
After five months on the streets he was well respected among the other kids, ‘trained’ and well versed in the area – especially the busy, dangerous Nyabugogo bus station. This doesn’t change the fact that he and the other boys were still spending nights sleeping in bushes or under the bridges.
The Rwandan Orphans Project Center for Street Children in Nyabugogo was well known to them – it was in their neighborhood. One day Erik was passing next to this orphanage, when suddenly someone called to him and later introduced himself. He was a staff member of the ROP Center. Erik was seduced by possibility of receiving regular meals and had agreed to join this facility. Initially it was very hard for him, but after the whole orphanage was moved to Kanombe he found peace and solace. Now he is a happy boy and he has hope – something he has never experienced before.
The hopelessness of everyday life has ended and as Erik says ‘I want to live to show other kids that life does not end up on the street’.