Here, There and Everywhere

We’ve Come A Long Way

From ROP Stories

We’ve come a long way, baby!
31 March, 2012 by Sean

Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how much progress the Rwandan Orphans Project has made in just the last couple of years. The reason I bring this up is because we are approaching the second anniversary of the Center’s move from the dark, dank warehouse that we had called home for several years to our wonderful current home on the outskirts of Kigali.

The building itself was bad enough: little more than a two-story warehouse that was actually meant to be three floors but construction ceased during the 1994 Genocide and never restarted.

We occupied the “second floor” which meant our roof was never meant to be a roof, and therefore it wasn’t built to withstand the elements, particularly Rwanda’s heavy rains. The only thing keeping water from flooding the classrooms and dorm rooms was the plastic sheeting that composed the “roof”.

This also meant that the building’s electrical and plumbing work had never been completed, or, in truth, barely even started. We had two light bulbs in the entire place, one in the foyer and another in the teachers office, and most days neither worked. I recall our teachers grading papers many times by candlelight or the light from their phone screens in the middle of the day. Scattered randomly throughout the Center, usually on the floor, were bare wires that the staff and children would wrap around plugs to power radios and the keyboard that was missing about 30% of its keys. When it rained the inside of the center became filled with various puddles and the boys would snake the wires around them, but often they would end up in the water anyway. I received my own fair share of 240 volt shocks from this setup.

Below us on the ground floor was a warehouse for storing beans, maize flour and other foods. The men who worked there were gruff and not particularly child-friendly. Actually, they seemed to see our boys as more of an annoyance than anything. I recall a couple of times when our boys were playing football and they would accidentally kick the ball near these workers. They would often kick the ball over the wall into the swamp or taunt the boys telling them they were keeping it for themselves.

Speaking of football, I would say the “playground” at the old Center was a joke if it wasn’t for the fact that it was so dangerous. Freight trucks would lumber around it as the children were attempting to play. The makeshift football ground was also a danger. The grass was always knee high and it masked all the stones, glass and metal scraps beneath, causing endless wounds because the boys had to play barefoot. In their usual creative way the boys made a makeshift volleyball court inside the warehouse by stretching a string from one pillar to another and using a ball made from plastic bags, banana tree leaves and scrap string they scavenged. This same ball was usually used for football and any other ball games.

The kitchen was a sad affair. It was nothing more than a large pot cooking on a three stone fire in a mud-brick hut. Water for cooking had to be fetched from the facility’s only tap on the other side of the building.

Every day, with very few exceptions throughout the year, the children ate beans and maize flour (ugali). On the rare occasion that someone donated fruit and vegetables we had to eat them within a day or two otherwise the rats would finish them off. When the food was ready about 200 boys would line up to get their plate. Some ate outside while others went back into the building and would sit on the floor to eat. We had no tables for them to sit at.

Back in the Center, the learning facilities were rather basic as well. The “library” consisted of donated books, most of which were decades old and pretty much all of them had water damage to some degree. The teachers had to share lesson books and even pencils due to the lack of resources. Despite these challenges our teachers were able to perform amazing work with the not-so-easy task of trying to educate the 200 children living at the Center at the time along with the 150 or so “day scholars”, kids from the streets and local poor families who crowded into our Center each day for the free lessons.

Then there were the dormitories. There were three dorm rooms in the Center. Two were for the young and middle-aged boys and they were the most crowded. Each was full of rusting bunk beds with old moldy mattresses and shredded mosquito nets that really served no purpose at all. Bigger boys slept two to a bed while the smaller children slept three to a bed. These rooms were the darkest, dampest and stinkiest in the building. Bed bugs, moths, rats and other critters also shared these spaces.

The oldest and biggest boys occupied their own room on the far side of the building. Here they propped up sheets, tarps and any other materials they had scavenged to create their own private spaces. They had also ran electrical wires from the front of the building and setup their own ad hoc power grid to power their radios and charge their phones. It seemed more like a back alley hideout than a place for people to live.

In February of 2010 the ROP changed our role from being solely donors, dismissed the staff who had been mismanaging our funds and formally took over the management of the Center. In March the Rwandan government came knocking, telling us that the warehouse was an unsuitable place for children to live and they we must move. We agreed with their assessment but we hadn’t another place to go to nor the funds to rent another facility. We rushed around Rwanda hoping to find an abandoned building or some old place we could rent cheaply while we looked for another place. Near the end of March the government came back and gave us 15 days to move or they would shut us down. We feared the worst.

A few days later we were told about a school just outside of Kigali that wasn’t being used anymore. It was owned by a large secondary school across the road but hadn’t been functioning since 1994. The people who owned it sympathized with our plight and told us we could move there and stay free of charge. As you can imagine the place wasn’t in the best condition but it had potential. It was in a nice, quiet area far from the dangers and temptations of the city. It was open and bright and had plenty of room for the children to play. It was a new home for our boys and a fresh start for the ROP. We gladly began moving out of that dark and claustrophobic place the boys had called home for so many years.

Fast forward two years and our new home is better than ever, thanks to all the creativity, effort and money we’ve poured into it. Thanks to all the hard work of our staff and children, along with all the wonderful assistance we’ve received from our donors, we now have…

A teachers office
A real volleyball court
An amazing new kitchen
A big dining hall with tables
A sprawling playground
A nursery school
A library/playroom
A formal health clinic
Real classrooms with proper benches and natural light
A football team
A capoeira team

I could go on and on, but there are plenty of other blog posts here that share all of the wonderful things that we are able to offer our children at the ROP.

As great as this story is, this is not the final chapter. Unfortunately we do not own the land or the buildings, and the people who do have decided to begin charging us a large amount of rent every month. This puts a huge strain on our already tight budget, and as a result the future of the ROP might be at risk, as well as the futures of the children under our care . Thankfully, last year we received an extremely generous donation from Tony and Carol Roberts from Australia that allowed us to purchase our own land not far from our current location. We are grateful to them every day. While this was the first step towards our independence it remains difficult to raise funding not only to continue operating at our current location but to also put aside money for building facilities on our new property. We remain optimistic, however, that people within Rwanda as well as those from around the world will see just how far we’ve come in such a short time and will give us the support we need to not only survive, but to continue to thrive.

Read entire story with additional photographs at ROP Stories.

Donate to the Rwandan Orphan’s Project at Donate

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