Greetings from Rwanda!
We hope you are having a great summer! There’s been a lot going on around the Rwandan Orphans Project’s Imizi Children’s Center, so we wanted to tell you what we’ve been up to since our last update.
The biggest and best news is the fact that we have been able to fully pay off our new land. That’s right, back in May we were able to make the final payment on our new home, and we are currently in the process of finalizing the paperwork that will secure the property, and our future, for many years to come.
When the ROP started out in an abandoned industrial warehouse the idea of having our own permanent home was nothing more than a dream. In 2010 we were able to move to a better location, but there we had to pay rent, which was a significant burden on our budget each and every year. Today we have finally realized our goal of securing a permanent facility for our children’s program, and we couldn’t have done it without you.
Another great achievement happened just last Friday when one of our graduates, Jean, graduated from the National University of Rwanda having earned himself a bachelor’s degree. Even more impressive was the fact that he graduated FIRST IN HIS ENTIRE CLASS! That is no small feat at all, especially considering he graduated with nearly 2,000 other students.
Jean is a survivor of the 1994 Genocide, the tragedy that saw approximately 800,000 Rwandans killed, including his own parents and siblings. He is the sole survivor of his family, and the physical and mental scars were never easy for him to overcome. After losing his family he ended up surviving on his own on the streets of Kigali until, at age 12, he found the ROP. No student worked harder in the classroom and when Jean wasn’t in class, washing his clothes or doing other chores his nose would be buried in any book he could get his hands on. The results of his commitment to aspire to a better life combined with the opportunities ROP was able to give him are now celebrated by us all.
When speaking to our boys at his party he told them, “I attended classes with rich kids and kids who had ‘normal’ families. Many of them doubted me and discouraged me because, in their eyes, having been a street boy, I could never hope to achieve anything. First I proved them wrong by being elected class president in my second year. Many still doubted me, so I showed them by becoming the best student in the entire school. Now they can’t doubt me. Never let anyone doubt you because of where you came from. The only one who can stop you doing great things is yourself”.
Please support the Rwandan Orphans Project’s Imizi Children’s Center.
Posts tagged ‘genocide’
Most people didn’t know who the Rwandans were until it was too late, and 800,000 of them were dead. Right now, the fate of Burma’s Rohingya people is hanging by a thread. Racist thugs have distributed leaflets threatening to wipe out this small Burmese minority. Already children have been hacked to death and unspeakable murders committed. All signs are pointing to a coming horror, unless we act.
Genocides happen because we don’t get concerned enough until the crime is committed. The Rohingya are a peaceful and very poor people. They’re hated because their skin is darker and the majority fear they’re ‘taking jobs away’. There are 800,000 of them, and they could be gone if we don’t act. We’ve failed too many peoples, let’s not fail the Rohingya.
Burmese President Thein Sein has the power, personnel and resources to protect the Rohingya, all he has to do is give the word to make it happen. In days, he’ll arrive in Europe to sell his country’s new openness to trade. If EU leaders greet him with a strong request to protect the Rohingya, he’s likely to do it. Let’s get 1 million voices and plaster images of what’s happening in Burma outside his meetings with key EU heads of state:
Torture, gang rape, execution style killings — human rights groups are using the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the brutality in Burma. Already more than 120,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee, many to makeshift camps near the border, while others have fled in boats only to drown, starve, or be shot at by coastguards from neighboring countries. Reports show that violence is escalating — earlier this year President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency after another round of deadly attacks, and it’s just a matter of time until there is a large scale massacre.
Genocides don’t happen when governments oppose them, but the Burmese regime has been leaning the wrong way. Recently, a government spokesperson admitted that authorities were enforcing a rule that limits the Rohingya population to having only two children and forces couples seeking to get married to obtain special permission. And experts report that government authorities have stood by or even participated in acts of “ethnic cleansing.” President Sein has finally been forced to acknowledge what’s happening to the Rohingya, but he has so far refused to implement plans to stop the violence and protect those at risk.
Until he does, the risk of genocide hovers like a dark cloud over not just Burma, but the world. Through their trade relations, UK PM Cameron and French President Hollande have massive leverage with Sein — if they press him to act when he meets with them this month, it could save lives. Let’s make sure they do. We’ve failed too many peoples, let’s not fail the Rohingya. Join the call now and share this with everyone:
Time and again, the Avaaz community has stood with the people of Burma in their fight for democracy. When the regime brutally cracked down on Buddhist monks in 2007, Avaazers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars/euros/pounds to provide technical support and training to activists to fight a communications blackout. In 2008, when a devastating cyclone killed at least 100,000 Burmese, but the venal military regime stopped all official international aid from coming in, our community donated millions directly to monks on the front line of the aid effort.
Our community didn’t exist when genocide was committed in Rwanda, 20 years ago. Would we have done enough to stop it? Let’s show the Rohingya our answer to that question.
With hope and determination,
Luis, Jeremy, Aldine, Oliver, Marie, Jooyea and the whole Avaaz team
I was on the board of The Ihangane Project and continue to support their work. This is a wonderful article.
From The Huffington Post
by Suzanne Skees
15 April 2012
Rwanda Now: Healing the Grandchildren of the Genocide
Julienne was just four during the 1994 genocide. She is HIV-positive and works as an artisan for this member-owned women’s collective through The Ihangane Project. Ihangane brought solar lighting to the health clinic where she gave birth safely without transmitting the virus to her 4-month-old son, Kingi; they also provide nutrition supplements for Kingi and gardening and nutrition training for Julienne.
Ruli: Rwanda: Far up in the hills of central Africa in a village called Ruli, families live as do 90% of Rwandans, working the land. To get to Ruli, you have to go off the map, over 2.5 hours of bumpy roads, winding your way northwest of Kigali; and you have to be willing to leap backward in time. Here, people live mired in the past, swinging hoes and hoisting water, centuries behind in infrastructure, yet also suffering the aftereffects of a more recent past — the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Already challenged by poverty, this land-locked country with a legacy of colonizer-instilled tribal conflict experienced decades of violence that culminated in a gruesome genocide of nearly 1 million Tutsis and Hutus. Another 2 million fled to hellish refugee camps in neighboring countries. Houses burned, livestock died, fields languished, and the economy nosedived. It took years to discern whom to prosecute and forgive, who owned what, and how to live together again. Women were widowed, children orphaned, and an already-high prevalence of HIV skyrocketed among women survivors of rape.
U.S. physician Dr. Wendy Leonard decided to take action. She boarded a flight in 2006 as the first physician volunteer for the Clinton Foundation’s HIV clinical mentoring program in Rwanda. They sent her to a remote village called Ruli, and told her to oversee government health initiatives. She found, instead, that she had a lot of listening — and learning — to do.
“It’s really about understanding who it is you’re trying to help,” Wendy says. “Every time I’m in Rwanda, I learn more about the people and the culture.”
The first week on the job, Wendy’s mentor, Dr. Jean de Dieu Ngirabega, told her, “If you want to help our community, you must first get to know us.” He took her to a local wedding, a Catholic/traditional ceremony that carried on all day. Hundreds of guests sat patiently in searing heat on wobbly wooden benches, trading stories and gossip, watching a never-ending procession of neighbors bearing gifts in agaseke, hand-woven lidded baskets borne atop women’s heads filled with rice, beans, seeds — anything the new couple may need to start their life together. The father of the bride presented them with a cow. Wendy knew the hosts were among the poorest of Africa’s poor, and all her theories about charity evaporated in the stifling air as she watched them feed every single person who showed up.
“Everyone gets a Fanta, and everyone gets fed — even if only corn on the cob,” she marvels. “No matter how poor you might be, everyone provides for each other.” She saw this practice again at the clinical level. For example, surveys revealed that 200 community health volunteers wished for increased nutrition training — not salaries. “It makes sense to try and raise funds to pay even a small stipend,” Wendy reflects now, “but just by asking, we discovered that was not their motivation at all.”
Then, the doctor from America flipped the model — from top-down development to community-based grassroots–and launched The Ihangane Project in 2008. The name means being patient; its mission is to improve healthcare and economic development. Ihangane is “just facilitating what Rwandans are already doing,” Wendy explains. “All our projects are initiated by Rwandans. We always ask, What can we do to strengthen their capacity?”
45-year-old Dr. Avite runs the 168-bed Ruli District Hospital, where he sees patients for accidents on motorbikes and in “unofficial local mines”; cardiovascular and cirrhosis problems. Throughout Rwanda, the population suffers a high rate of alcoholism and PTSD, anxiety, and depressive disorders: Part of the legacy of the genocide. Dr. Avite and his wife have three adopted teenage children.
Ihangane provides technical and financial support for community-created models:
artisan sales by microenterprise collective
solar power initiative
maternal and infant care
rural hospital improvements
local healthcare linkages
nutrition, gardening, and pig-farming projects
Ihangane aims for self-sustaining solutions that soon will graduate from donor inputs. “For example,” explains Wendy, “for HIV-exposed infants in Ruli at high risk for malnutrition, we provide sosoma, a porridge of soya, sorghum, and maize fortified with vitamins and minerals. This supports one of the many truly beautiful protocols from the government [Ministry of Health]; but the funding is not there. So, we are building farming collectives to grow component grains. We’ll grow locally and sell to Ruli hospital at a much more affordable cost. The farmers also can sell their surplus crops for an additional profit.”
The day we visit, rain falls softly at the top of one of Rwanda’s “thousand hills,” and the red soil looks rich. However, this land has been stripped by one-crop farming and poisoned by toxic pesticides. Many farming families have been reduced to a diet of rice and maize. Banana trees carpet the hills, yet only a few still produce fruit — often used to make beer. Now, Ruli residents have asked for diversified garden inputs and training on how to grow high-yield crops and cook nutritious meals.
The main hospital has electricity; however, several of the eight outlying health centers previously had no power. Women who went into labor at night had to give birth in the dark. “Now we have solar lighting in eight health centers,” Isaac, an Ihangane volunteer and lab technician, tells us. “We can light the maternity ward 24 hours a day, power a microscope and a radio phone used to call for an ambulance if needed.” Partnering with Catapult Design, “the Ihangane solar project is just on time,” Isaac smiles.
Gratien, another intern, bicycles from his father’s nearby farm to help the Ruli Women’s Cooperative launch a pig farming enterprise in nearby Nyange. Livestock farming will diversify their income and allow them to increase their membership. “Pigs are simple,” Gratien laughs. “They are not complicated. They need only a small pen. They eat slop.” Ihangane will raise funds for initial building and livestock materials, and then Ruli will take it from there.
A few of the thirty artisans of the Ihangane Women’s Association. Each member pays $25 to join. They put 10 percent of profits into savings, create group loans for one another, and divide the remaining 90 percent among members. Founding president Madeleine (far right) taught the members to dry sisal fibers, dye them, and weave into traditional wedding baskets. They also produce cards, pictures, and jewelry.
“Sometimes when we want so badly to help, we just come in and try to help,” Wendy muses. “If we come in to learn who they are first, sometimes we find amazingly rich resources already in the community.” For the artisans, Ihangane provided startup materials, and will provide follow-up training through local fair-trade expert from Rwanda Economic Development Initiative (REDI).
Read complete article and see video at The Huffington Post.
At one time, all of the children in this book lived on the streets of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Their parents died from the genocide in 1994 or from the AIDS pandemic. They have been given new life and hope at an orphanage called ROP Center for Street Children. The stories from The Skin of Lions are taken from their personal experiences, traditional folk tales or unique creative imaginations. The children range in age from ten to nineteen and tell tales for all generations. They share their words from a thousand-year-old oral tradition and speak for all those that have been silenced.
The Skin of Lions by AHIKIRIJE Jean Bosco (Age 17)
There was a man, named Cambarantama, who looked after his sheep and cultivated his fields. One day, while he was looking after his sheep and leading them to the grasses, he found a small animal in the bush that had eaten some of his crops. When the man came back the next day, the same small creature had eaten more of his crops. He took the little animal back home and said, “I’m going to have to kill you for eating my crops.”
The small animal said, “Wait; please don’t eat me. Forgive me and I will not eat your crops any more.”
Cambarantama had a good heart, forgave the little animal and let him go.
On his way back to the shamba (field) the next day, Cambarantama was approached by a very big animal. The big animal told Cambarantama that he had to kill one of the sheep in the field and give it to him for his kettle. Cambarantama was scared and did as he was told. He went and killed one of his sheep and gave it to the big animal. This kept happening day after day.
One day, on his way to his shamba, Cambarantama met the little animal that he had forgiven. The little animal said, “I see that you have less and less sheep. What has happened?”
Cambarantama replied, “There is a big animal that comes every day and makes me give it one of my sheep. That is why you see so few that are left.”
The little animal he had saved said, “The next time that big animal comes I will be next to you, hidden in a bush. I will tell you what to say.”
Cambarantama took his sheep to the grasses and the big animal once again came from the forest and told him it was time for him to give him another one of his flock, but Cambarantama said he would not give him any more. The small animal was hidden next to Cambarantama and spoke out loud.
“Who are you talking to?” asked the big animal.
The small animal said loudly, “I am the king of heaven and earth who puts on the skin of lions.”
“Who is that?” asked the big animal.
“What are you looking for?” shouted the little animal, hidden behind the bush.
The big animal was scared and said, “I . . . I’m just looking for firewood.”
“Sit down and don’t move!” shouted the little animal, who then whispered to Cambarantama to get the firewood rope and tie the hands and legs of the big animal.
That is how Cambarantama captured and killed the big ferocious animal and saved his sheep, with the help of the little vegetable eating animal he had forgiven.
(All proceeds from sale of book go to ROP Center for Street Children.)
From ROP Stories.
This is Emmanuel, a fiery, precocious 11 year old. Or maybe he’s 12. Probably though, he’s only ten years old, judging by his size. You see, Emmanuel doesn’t know how old he is. He doesn’t know the year he was born, and if you ask him which day, his answer will be January 1st. Coincidentally that is the same birthday as many of the children staying at the Rwandan Orphans Project Center. Actually it’s not a coincidence at all, because Emmanuel is not alone in not knowing his actual birthday, so like many others he simply tells people he was born on January 1st.
Not knowing his own birthday is low on the list of difficulties young Emmanuel has faced in his short life. You see, the fact that he lives at the ROP Center means that he comes from a difficult background. But for the boy with the irresistible grin life has been particularly cruel. When he was, in his words “much younger” – keep in mind his current age when you read that – he witnessed his father beat his own mother to death right in front of him. Emmanuel’s father – he doesn’t recall his name – was part of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He doesn’t know if he was a survivor or a perpetrator, but he knows that it led him to a life of alcoholism and abuse. Often, his father would drink heavily and take out his aggression on Emmanuel, his mother and his young siblings. One day, in an alcohol fueled rage, his father beat his mother so badly with his walking stick that she died, right in front of little Emmanuel. To this day he doesn’t know what caused him to do it.
His father, being a cripple, was quickly apprehended by the police and subsequently given a life sentence in jail for his vicious crime. Emmanuel and his siblings had no relatives who could care for them, so they were left to fend for themselves. So Emmanuel did what so many children in Rwanda are forced to, he turned to the streets to survive. There his life became about just making it to the next day by any means possible. Begging for food and change was a necessity, but with gangs of street kids controlling the most profitable locales, it was not easy for a lone child to get anything for himself. If he did, usually the gangs would corner him and beat him until he surrendered it to them.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire. MORE
When most people think of Rwanda, the first two images that come to mind are usually Hotel Rwanda and the gorillas. If you asked them where in the country the gorillas reside (on the northern border of The Congo and Uganda) or when the genocide occurred, the majority of respondents must admit ignorance. If you told them the gorillas have been flourishing, as well as the country, they may think you are pulling their leg. Sixteen years since the 1994 genocide and several decades after the murder of Dian Fossey is a tiny blip in historical time, but centuries in the changes that have occurred in Rwanda.
In a country known as the land of a thousand hills, Rwanda is becoming increasingly known for its environmental policies, gender equality, stable government and breathtaking beauty. Positive internal and international support for protecting and expanding the parks and educating the people living in the surrounding towns and villages, has been nurtured, supported and expanded. There are now over 700 mountain gorillas (minus the recent killings of several gorilla families in the Democratic Republic of Congo) living in an area that once saw them close to extinction. But how has this rapid change and growth been impacting those directly involved, both those in the tourist industry and those living in communities that surround the Volcanoes National Park, where the gorillas reside?
As we descended from the world-renown sanctuary (which includes the Dian Fossey Research Foundation) through the village of Sacola, a local farmer named Dagazay Ma replied to such questions by adamantly stating, “The tourists and park don’t help our family, but I think it is important to protect the gorillas and it gives hope for Rwanda.” Another man named Jimmy Ma leaned on his hoe at the corner of his field of vegetables and said, “The gorillas are very very important for our country because they help the country and local people. If you get the tourists, they buy from shops. Life has gotten better since more tourists arrived.” Jimmy has two sisters and one brother he helps support, as both his parents are no longer living. He is in his early twenties and says he goes to school during the week and works on the farm on weekends and evenings.
Our park guide Fidel, who has worked as a ranger at the park for 13 years, added, “A portion of your fee (500 U.S. per person) goes to fund community projects, schools and local arts and crafts. The stone wall around the park was made by local villagers who were paid for its construction.” The wall keeps buffalo from leaving the park and trampling the farmer’s fields, as well as providing a delineation point for the park boundaries. A portion of the fee also pays for the rangers, who are on 24 hour patrol throughout the park, as well as continuing research by the Dian Fossey Foundation and other conservation organizations (both national and international).
The majority of tourists arrive from America, England, France and neighboring African countries of Uganda, Congo, Burundi and Kenya. Kamanzi Alloys, who drove us from the Rwandan capital of Kigali to Ruhengari (the largest city in the north) said, “People in town like the money tourists bring into their shops. More and more people are learning English as a result. I learned English in school. Our country is safe and people are happier. Tourists go to the national park and Lake Kivu (on the western border of Rwanda) for all their natural beauty.”
Because of the current level of safety, government stability and support for the environment, numerous international businesses and non-governmental organizations are finding their way to Rwanda. It is centrally located, has one of the best communications systems in Africa, especially for wireless phone connections and has a political climate that has opened the door for investment and entrepreneurs. Some of the companies investing in Rwanda include Starbucks, Costco, Bechtel, Columbia Sportswear and Google. Rwanda is also one of the first countries to participate in the One Laptop Per Child Program that intends to provide a revolutionary new computer with internet access to every child in the country. Other nations and organizations have also committed funding for Rwanda’s energy needs, education and health care. All of the people involved with these agencies, companies and organizations bring goods, services and capital into the country. Combine that influx of capital with the money tourists spend on food, lodging, transportation, entertainment and merchandise and you can see why it would be difficult for most Rwandans to turn off the cash faucet and say “No”.
Even with this influx, not everyone is partaking of the bounty; not everything is “trickling down” or even started to flow. Less than five percent of the population has computers or internet access and the majority of this agriculturally driven economy are still poor farmers tilling every inch of land available. Rwanda is the most densely populated country per square mile in all of Africa. Thousands of orphans continue to live on the streets and the middle class are just beginning to see the benefits and climb out of poverty themselves.
Rwanda is not picture perfect, but for those directly and indirectly impacted by tourists visiting the Volcanoes National Park and the rare mountain gorillas within their midst, life is looking pretty good. Compared to the recent past, Rwanda is becoming a Shangri-la in the middle of Africa and all of those involved in the tourist industry are climbing aboard, holding on to and leading the tourist’s coattails, with hope for continued prosperity and a better tomorrow.
Dr. James Hall ended up working harder after he retired, then anytime during his forty years of dentistry, including a number of years in the U.S. military and private practice in Ocean Beach (near San Diego) California. What was overwhelming and exhausting, was a stint he did with a medical team at a center for orphans in Rwanda. There were over 150 young people who had never seen a dentist or had a toothbrush, let alone any instructions on oral hygiene and care! “Connecting with the kids and making eye contact is amazing, like a universal language,” says Dr. Hall, who saw up to 25 children per day!
Paying his own way to work at The ROP Center for Street Children in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, “felt like the right thing to do,” says Dr. Hall or “Jim” to his friends. He had the time, the money and most importantly, the skill and desire to make a difference in the lives of children who had survived the 1994 genocide and/or the AIDS pandemic. He had never thought about traveling around the world to Africa until a friend told him about a group that was going to provide medical care and trauma relief. “It was like the day I decided to become a dentist,” Jim recalls, “I had just graduated from Purdue and gone to see my family dentist. He asked me what I was going to do with my life and said he’d always thought that I would be a good dentist. When he said that, it was like a bolt of lightening that went up my spine. It gave me a chill. I immediately knew he was right, even though I’d never thought about it before.”
The team Dr. Hall joined was part of a group that consisted of nurses, therapists, teachers, journalists and economists. They worked in the orphanage and at other teaching centers in Kigali. ROP had minimal facilities, a leaking roof, dim, if any light and a wooden bench as a dental chair. With the help of interpreters, Dr. Hall had each child lay down on the raised bench and examined their teeth and gums. “Some people think being a dentist is boring,” states Dr. Hall, “but everyone that comes presents a new problem, a new thing to solve; a new communication. I learn something new all the time.”
In addition to his passion for learning something new, Jim has a big heart. He spoke to each child as if they were the only person in the world and told them how important their teeth were. More importantly, he stressed their individual importance. He reminded them that they are “a very special person” and even though he said it hundreds of times, it was always sincere. The kids responded in kind with nods, smiles and gigantic grins of understanding.
For three weeks Jim (Dr. Hall) sweated in the African heat, from morning until night, to see as many children as he could. Even though he was tireless in his endeavors, he could not see all of the children and realized that something more needed to be done. Before leaving Rwanda, Dr. Hall and another team member found some local dentists and were able to meet with the Kigali Dental Association. “It seemed to me that it was better for us to pay for local dentists to provide ongoing care for the kids, than just do one big push,” he says. “Not only does it keep it in the community, with Rwandans helping Rwandans, but it also helps the local economy.”
There are over a million orphans in Rwanda and countless agencies, both government and private, trying to ease the impact such numbers have on society, by providing food, clothing, shelter and education, but there are still thousands of children living on the streets or temporarily housed in government centers, only to be released back on their own after three to six months. Dr. Hall had no illusions that he was going to “save the world”. “If I can reach just one kid and they believe their teeth are really important,” Jim smiles, “I’ve done something. I know something good came out of this. I just trust the way the world works.”
Upon entering the abandoned automotive warehouse that was once the home of ROP, the team Dr. Hall traveled with was greeted with exuberant music and dance by the children, teachers and staff. They received the same gift upon their departure and were deeply touched. Jim says wistfully, “The sound of the music and voices was overwhelming. I had tears running down my cheek.”
It is ironic that it is Dr. Hall who feels grateful for his experience in Rwanda, as much or more than those that received his care. “Dentistry is so intimate,” he says softly. “I feel it is a great privilege to be a dentist. It takes such great concentration. Everything and everyone else is excluded. It keeps you in the moment.”
Perhaps it is that sense of “being in the moment” that made it possible for this retired dentist from California to connect so closely with children and teenagers from another culture and another land, without being able to speak their language. He was able to look beyond their personal suffering, recent past and present conditions and see them as precious human beings who want the same things we all do; to be seen, honored and cared for.
Volunteering for three weeks with a medical team and trauma specialists to provide care to children orphaned by the 1994 genocide and AIDS in Rwanda, is not a young man’s usual birthday wish on their fourteenth birthday, yet that is what Shona Blumeneau, a teenager from Santa Cruz, California experienced at ROP Center for Street Children. “It was really cool and different,” he says with a warm grin. “The people are very kind.”
Some estimates put the number of orphans in Rwanda at over a million. There have been vast improvements since the nineties, but thousands of kids are still living on the streets and many of the orphanages and youth centers that have taken in survivors (also referred to as “street rebels”) are struggling to provide basic needs, let alone education and vocational training for the children in their care.
Shona and his family held yard sales, received donations from relatives and friends across the country and had a local musician put on a piano concert to raise funds for their journey. “I worked as a referee and as a coach at a summer soccer camp,” Shona recalls. He saved half of any money he got for his birthday or holidays and put it away for his airfare to Rwanda. He says could have stayed home with friends, “but I really wanted to see Africa and make a difference.”
When he arrived in Africa and started working at ROP Center for Street Children in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, Shona found that “half the time the kids accepted me and tried to bring me into their culture and the rest of the time they wanted me to get them things or bring them home to The States.” He said they all assumed he was rich because he was from America and comparatively speaking, he is. The average daily wage in Rwanda is about one US dollar per day. “It would be hard to grow up in an orphanage and not have a family to support you,” he reflects. Every morning they returned the boys and girls would approach, grab his hands and ask if he remembered their name. They wanted to be seen, heard and reassured that they would not be forgotten. “It was awkward when I said ‘No’,” says Shona, “but I couldn’t remember everyone’s name.”
The team Shona traveled with came from throughout the U.S. and included two nurses, a psychologist, family therapist, nurse practitioner, dentist, minister, two teachers, journalist, photographer and a quilting instructor. They worked with six translators, from early morning until evening, with hundreds of children at ROP for almost three weeks. Shona assisted the nurse practitioner and dentist to give these children the first check-up they’d ever had in their lives. “At first I took pictures and then I started taking their height and weight and testing their eyes with a wall chart,” Shona proclaims. “Whitney (the nurse practitioner) taught me how to look in ears and what to look for and Jim (the dentist) showed me how to record information about teeth and gums.”
Most of the children at ROP are in their teens and adopted the young American as their brother or “inshuti” (friend in Kinyarwanda). “Everyone has a story,” says Shona, “about how their life has been since the genocide. There was one kid whose parents and siblings were killed, except for a baby sister. They were stuck on the street, taking care of the sister and eating rotten food until the director of the orphanage found them and brought them to ROP.”
His time at the orphanage was not all work and no play. “Sometimes I was just chilling with them talking, trying to communicate and understand each other. A lot of them are learning English and I picked up a few words of Kinyarwanda.” Shona’s family also brought four suitcases of donated soccer uniforms they had been collecting from parents and kids back home and provided enough outfits and balls for four teams. Shona, who has played soccer since he was four years old, would make foray’s to play with his adopted brothers and sisters on the mud and rock strewn field behind the orphanage and come back after twenty minutes dripping with sweat. “Those guys are really good!” he’d exclaim, trying to catch his breath, as he collapsed on one of the thin wooden benches used by students during class.
The words “life-changing” are often thrown around loosely in our society. To Shona Blumeneau, the words are real. “This trip has changed my life,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever whine about anything again.” His perspective on the privilege he enjoys in America was matched by his new found appreciation and understanding of Rwanda. “Even though there is poverty, it isn’t as bad as people describe it. Most of Africa is poor, but there is also a lot of development and hope. The kids really want to learn everything they can. I have a lot of respect for them.”
When asked if he would like to return to Rwanda, Shona, who is now a high school senior, said quickly, “Absolutely! I learned that even though I’m in another country, I still like working with kids and I can do that anywhere, even if I don’t speak their language. I think I would like to work in the medical field and I love traveling.”
You can bet your last dollar that this determined young teen from the United States will indeed make his way back to Africa, where the orphaned children of The ROP Center for Street Children will hold his hand, look him in the eye and ask, “Do you remember me?”
When this story about Franco was first written, the orphanage was called El Shaddai. It has since changed it’s name to the ROP Center for Street Children and moved to the other side of Kigali.
If it isn’t difficult enough to be a teenager, try growing up in a country that just over 16 years ago experienced one of the worst genocides in African history and combine that with having both of your parents die from AIDS when you are only 15 years of age. That’s the life into which Franco Gakwaya was born, but it is not the end of the story.
Rwanda is in East Africa, adjacent to Lake Kivu and bordered by the countries of the Congo, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania. It is a land-locked nation, known as the “land of a thousand hills” for its rolling iron-rich red landscape, fertile fields and volcanic mountains. Some of the rarest species of mountain gorillas live within its northern borders and chimpanzees are protected in national parks in the east.
Even though Rwanda is now a bustling and successful country that is providing health care, education, jobs and economic growth to it citizens, most people only know about the 1994 genocide, in which a million people were killed by their neighbors over a 30-day period. It was horrible and still affects every single Rwandan.
The AIDS pandemic has also touched Rwanda. As a result, there are thousands upon thousands of orphaned and vulnerable children. In the last twelve years, many of these children have been placed in foster homes, orphanages or boarding schools, but far too many still roam the roads and live on the streets. Franco is one of those who found a new place to call home, an orphanage called ROP Center for Street Children. ROP is located in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the most densely populated country per square mile in all of Africa.
“We sleep four to a bunk for the older boys,” says Franco, “and six for the younger smaller kids.” MORE
“I saw over five hundred kids walking out of the Congo three years ago and decided I had to do something about it,” says Rev. Paul Oas. What he did was organize the church he attends in San Diego, California to provide support and funds for an orphanage in Rwanda (called ROP Center for Street Children) and put together a team of people to visit the orphanage of 150 children and assist them with health care, clean water, trauma relief, job training and hope for a future in a country that is still reeling from the 1994 genocide. “I feel like I’m in my twenties again,” says Pastor Paul, as his seventy-five year old eyes light up.
For three weeks Pastor Paul, who likes to be called Paul, helped coordinate a team of concerned health professionals in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali. They worked from morning until night providing children at the center with the first medical check up and exam they had ever had, teaching older youth sewing and quilting skills, in order to have a vocation once they left the orphanage and connecting the center for orphans with local clinics, dentists and a water filtration company. They also provided classes in Thought Field Therapy – TFT (a meridian based treatment that eliminates symptoms of post traumatic stress) and did a follow up study with children they had treated the previous year. Other members of the team taught classes on TFT to orphanage directors, ministers and other social service organizations from all over Rwanda.
Paul says, “When people without church backgrounds see things like this they are touched as well and have a change in values. Too often religion has become more interested in form than in function. In the twelfth chapter of Romans Paul says, ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice and this is your reasonable worship’”. In other words, make sure your walk matches your talk.
There are countless disappointments and frustrations with this kind of work and mission, such as never having enough resources and constant feelings of helplessness, but Pastor Paul believes these realities are part of the journey. “I still get overwhelmed and feel like it’s all a drop in the bucket. The way I take care of that is to keep getting others involved and having it expand.” He says his father and mother (who was a nurse) taught him to always “find a way” and believed “we’re all one family”.
Working in Rwanda is not the first time Paul has gone outside his community in southern California. He has also organized trips to orphanages in Baja Mexico and worked with survivors in Kosovo, as well as visiting a refugee camp of 100,000 on the border of Sudan. He believes that words mean nothing without corresponding action and often quotes a passage from James 1: 27, which states, “True religion and uncorrupted, is to visit the orphans and the widows in their distress and to keep one self unstained from the world.”
After traveling and serving people in Kosovo, Mexico and Africa, Pastor Paul finds it challenging to live in such an affluent part of the world. Instead of judging or condemning those with affluence, he realized that most of them want to get involved and giving to others provides meaning for their lives as well. “People start blossoming,” he says. “Our mission is to help one another mobilize and find our individual gifts.”
The work Paul has done at the ROP Center for Street Children in Rwanda has also blossomed. Not only have members of his church at Christ Lutheran in San Diego committed funds and resources, but Pastor Paul has also reached out and received support for the orphans from concerned individuals and religious and non-religious organizations throughout the country and around the globe. “When you have the compassion to do something,” Paul says with a smile, “you’ll find roadblocks that will stop you, but don’t let them. The roadblocks are for some purpose. When people see your passion for God and His creation, they get involved and new paths appear.”
Pastor Paul Oas has not let roadblocks, government restrictions, lack of funds, cultural misunderstandings or church politics block his path to helping children or prevented him from bringing people of diverse backgrounds, beliefs and areas of the country to “get on board”. “Most people say they admire me for doings this, but I don’t want to be admired,” Paul says. “What they are really saying is that it is wonderful what you’re doing and I wish I could help. The greatest admiration is when they contribute or get involved. Some people make a show about how much they love God, but Jesus said, ‘How can you say you love God who you haven’t seen, when you don’t love the brother who you have seen?’”