Parents the world over want the best for their children. Depending on the culture and opportunities, a child can have the weight of the world on his or her shoulders or conversely, a trouble-free existence where every need is cared for without the child’s awareness.
In Rwanda, both extremes are evident. But the latter is more prevalent than the former. Children are becoming parents to their siblings or themselves, too often.
Let me introduce you to two groups of children being tended to, who could all too easily fall through the cracks: Ex child-combatants and child-headed households. Itafari is helping them both.
Ex child-combatants. Ex child-combatants are children who are being brought back to Rwanda from the Congo. Child soldiers are children aged 7 to 16 years old who have known the horrors and atrocities of war. They have participated in killing, maiming, or raping. They are taken from their families, used by the Congolese who commit acts of terror, and are easily persuaded to commit acts they do not understand. And they are expendable. Over 2600 children have been documented as being used in the war in the Congo.
Many have escaped back to Rwanda. And Rwanda is not ignoring the issue or the trauma these children have suffered.
I visited the rehabilitation site where these children live for three months. This rehabilitation center is funded through the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Program (RDRP). With support from its development partners, the center has diligently responded to the need for these children to be repatriated, rehabilitated, reunited with their families and reintegrated into main stream society, thus restoring their right to enjoy their childhood and grow up into responsible citizens. They are seen by doctors, social workers, councilors, and therapists and given much care and love so that they can reintegrate into society.
There were 36 children there the day we visited. The youngest was 7 years old. They look a little tough, until you begin to interact with them.
They become boys once more when they laugh, when they smile at you. When you are able to get past your differences. Me a white woman. Them, African boys. But when I become a Mama, and I see them like sons, we are the same. I had a funny personal experience there. I was reminded of my stepsons, who were 12, 14, and 16 when I married John. They too were highly skeptical of me when we first met. But I had chosen their father to marry, and so I had chosen them. The same feeling came over me as I looked at these boys who were strangers to me. I saw them as children who just needed to heal from their pain. We choose to help Rwanda, and so we choose them.
In all of my previous trips to Rwanda I had never heard of the RDRP! Truly, so much greatness happens silently with so few to notice. And greatness is happening here. In miraculous ways, these boys are healing!
The team at the center finds their families through simple yet successful ways. They talk with the children and see if they can remember a town or village, can they describe a church or building, do they know of a landmark, such as a tree? And in a sleuthing manner that would put the world’s greatest detectives to shame, they reunite these boys with their families. They begin to teach them in schools, they let them talk through their experiences. And for the first time, many of them get to be children, to play. They are safe, and protected, and not expected to ever hurt anyone again or need to protect themselves. The communities where they will eventually go to live are sensitized to their situation to help integrate them successfully into the communities. And healing begins.
Why does this happen that children can be pawns in war? I rarely know the why, but I can begin to answer the “now what”. We are incorporating some of the child ex-combatants into our existing child-headed cooperatives and our goat program. Read on to find out more.
Child-headed cooperatives. In Rwanda, children are parenting children. Think of your favorite 12- to 16-year-old. They have younger siblings. Can you imagine this 12- to 16-year-old child being fully and completely responsible for his or her younger brothers and sisters? Providing food, shelter, school fees, medical care, emotional support, and all other needs?
In short, being the parent.
That is the fate of thousands and thousands of children in Rwanda. Their parents have passed away during the genocide, fell ill and died, or disappeared. Again, I can’t answer the why of this issue, but I can provide the “now what”.
Itafari’s “now what” for these children is our goat program. We have formed a partnership with ASSIST Rwanda, a local not-for-profit, and RARDA, the government program for animal husbandry. We are raising a new breed of goat, crossing Rwanda nanny goats with South African Boer billy goats. These stronger, more disease-resistant goats will be given to child-headed household cooperatives that will breed them to make a living so that they can care for their families.
Together, we do more. We will be incorporating some of the child ex-combatants into our existing child cooperatives. With your assistance, Itafari will buy more goats, expand the program, change lives, and make the children smile once more.
For now, for Itafari, the answer is the simple goat – or ihene, in Kinyarwanda. We sell goats which are given to these child-headed households through cooperatives of 10 children each, 35 cooperatives to start. Together, the children will begin with one billy goat provided by RARDA and 15 nanny goats provided by Itafari. ASSIST Rwanda will manage and monitor the program. The children will care for these goats, breed more goats, and sell the offspring as they become available. They will also be required to give back some of the offspring to start more child-headed household cooperatives.
Simple. Effective. Empowering. Life changing. That is Itafari. That is a goat.
During my trip to Rwanda, Itafari presented 15 goats to a child cooperative who call themselves THE POWER OF LOVE. Their stories of why they qualify to be in our cooperatives are heartwrenching.
We made our presentation at the RARDA/Itafari/ASSIST demonstration farm. The district in Nyagatare where the farm is located generously donated the land for that farm; the goats that were presented there will be distributed out to cooperatives around the country. In attendance at the Itafari presentation were many government officials, representatives from each of our organizations, (RARDA/Itafari/ASSIST), curious onlookers, and the Power of Love Cooperative.
One young boy really caught my attention. He was 12, small for his age, very poor, tough, and looked defiant and angry. No smiles, no joy.
He was the one who I wanted to reach.
When I was told his name and age, I said, “He is strong.” He acknowledged I was right. And then I said, “It shows.” Just a glimmer of interest in his part. We got to present goats, and I chose him to present with a goat. She was a handsome nanny! And as we both held her front legs, something inside him appeared to soften. And then he began to smile. What a beautiful smile – because now he was a boy again. And then he wouldn’t stop smiling! Nor could I.
A simple goat. A child needing to be seen. It all comes together through the generosity of donors like you who may never see the beneficiary of their kindness. And in that anonymous act of giving, the world of a child is changed.
What we can do. Itafari continues to sell goats to our donors for $25 each. A goat you purchase will go to one of these child cooperatives – that is, to a child whose parent is dead or unable to provide any care, or to an ex-combatant child who has never known a childhood of any normalcy but now sees a chance. To a child who longs to know if they truly matter.
Through Itafari, and so many good organizations in Rwanda, these children have hope.
If you’d like to make a significant difference with less money than you spend on one dinner in a restaurant, consider giving a gift of a goat, $25, through Itafari. You can give it in honor of a loved one, in memory of someone you hold dear, as a gift for the animal lovers in your life, or just because it is so simple to change a life through a goat.
When is a child no longer a child? When no one sees them.
Help us see the children of Rwanda in a powerful way.
Send a check for $25 or more for goats to:
27 El Greco
Lake Oswego, OR 97035
Or you can give online through our secure website, http://itafari.org.
In any case, thank you for remembering the children. In your thoughts and prayers or through financial giving.
To read more about Itafari, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, please go to: http://itafari.org.
To go directly to photojournalist Adam Bacher’s blog where pictures of the October 2007 Itafari Tour of Hope in Rwanda are posted, please visit: http://bachersblog.com.
And please, never hesitate to write me with any questions.
You too can build itafari by itafari! Click here to sponsor a brick that will be engraved with your name.
When is a brick not just a brick? When it becomes a powerful symbol of possibility. When the word itafari spoken in Rwanda brings with it awareness: Of hope. Of strength. Of change.
When the Itafari Foundation began in August 2005, we hoped that the Kinyarwanda word for brick (itafari) would be an image that inspired the idea of opportunity – that placed a picture in people’s minds of what was lost, but also what could be gained. That one brick, one itafari, could do nothing. But together, we could help rebuild Rwanda itafari by itafari by itafari. We could help. We could partner. We could work alongside those who knew better than us what Rwanda needed – the people themselves.
As I travel through Rwanda, I speak of Itafari Foundation. When I introduce myself, “nitwa Vicky” (my name is Vicky), there is no recognition except that I am mzungu (white). But when I say I am a part of the Itafari Foundation, there is awareness, remembrance that they have heard of this Itafari Foundation.
And now we begin to find common ground. Not because I am known, but because Itafari is known. That is because our donors give to Itafari and I represent them and their intention to make a difference here in Rwanda.
Today was one of the best days I have ever had in Rwanda. And that’s saying something!
Today we had a ceremony for the ground breaking at Kigali Parents School for the High School that Itafari is helping to build. And what a ceremony it was! You know, we do not do justice to celebrating greatness in the U.S. In Rwanda, when you are honoring an organization, a new beginning, a success, there is a very formal process. And this process was part of what I took part in.
Kigali Parents Primary School began in 1995, one year after the genocide. Two teachers from Uganda whose parents had fled Rwanda in the late 1950s were called to a land that was devastated. Though they had never lived in Rwanda themselves, these two young men wanted to help the people they met. The survivors. And they only knew how to do one thing: teach. They set up their first small school in a brothel where the landlord agreed to give them one of the rooms and started with six children – some of them, the children of the brothel’s prostitutes. These prostitutes were desperate to feed their children, which was why they were willing to degrade themselves in this way.
Charles and Eugene began to teach. Soon they had more than 60 students crowded into that one room, different parts of a chalkboard separated to teach each grade of student.
And they persevered. And the children learned. And they grew their program. And soon took over more rooms in the brothel. Their dream of educating children blossomed. They acquired some land and slowly built the Kigali Parents Primary School (KPPS).
Today, 1500 children attend the highest academically rated elementary school in all of Rwanda! The school is simply amazing. The teachers and children demand excellence of one another. And all strive to serve to better their country and their families.
Itafari is honored to partner with them. Currently the Primary School goes through the sixth grade. After graduating sixth grade, all children in the country are required to take a national test. Kigali Parents School consistently has their students place first and in the top percentile of the nation!
The school is desks and chairs and a blackboard and students and teachers. The school is hope and possibility and greatness. And it is available to students regardless of the economic status or heritage. Because there is currently no Kigali Parents Secondary School (high school), the children often transfer to less academically rigorous schools and lose the advantage they have gained with their superior education.
At KPPS, the children arrive at 6:45am, work all morning, have about a 90-minute lunch, return to school and work until 5:00 pm. They are learning English, French, and Kinyarwanda. They are beautiful, well-behaved, smart kids. They wear a uniform that makes them all equal. You cannot tell a child who has a parent in the Government Cabinet, from the child who is there on a scholarship. They are the future of Rwanda. And they need a rigorous high school education that prepares them for University.
At the ceremony, Itafari presented our first donation toward the project we have been working on for over a year: building the new school. The ceremony took place at the future site of the school itself – nearby, a huge bulldozer was ready to clear the land. The dream has begun.
The children danced and sang – they had even written a song for Itafari. The city and district officials thanked Itafari for partnering with Rwanda in caring for the children. Principal Charles thanked Itafari for helping them realize their dream. The parents of students were there to look on proudly at all they had accomplished and what was possible.
I cried. I was overwhelmed.
Do you ever work so hard to accomplish something that you don’t stop to see what will happen when you begin to reach your goal? That is me and Itafari. As a Board, we are determined to build this school. Our donors hear our request and give. But not enough give specifically for the school.
We only have enough money to clear the land and level it. Next we must build the foundation of the entire school and then build S1 – Secondary 1 – seventh grade – for the KPPS who will be entering seventh grade in January 2008. We need about $190,000 to have Kigali Parents Secondary School (KPSS) open. And then each additional set of classrooms for the next grade will be built. It’s a wonderful way to build a school – as needed. Itafari by itafari by itafari.
Consider giving to this project. You can do so on the website. Every gift of $75 will qualify you for one itafari (brick), which will be placed on the front of the building. We will be selling approximately 2,000 itafari…and the children will remember always that people all over the world believe in them.
The parents at Kigali Parents Primary School will also be participating in this fundraising. This is their school. Their children. But they need our help.
Give on the website or send us a check. Buy amatafari (many bricks)! I will get back with you when I return to get the information on how you would like your name written on your itafari. Can you imagine: building a school itafari by itafari by itafari.
Safe drinking water is a major problem in Rwanda.
Everyone, regardless of age or infirmity, carries water. You see children eight years old carrying five-gallon yellow jerry cans to get water from a well. Water is life, and so many needlessly die from lack of safe drinking water.
The chance of me personally dying from this problem, or needing to carry five gallons of water for six kilometers, does not exist. We – myself and Adam Bacher, the photojournalist who has traveled here with me two weeks prior to prepare for the arrival of the Itafari Tour of Hope guests – can ask for amazi (water) in restaurants. And we can buy as much bottled water as necessary, because bottled water is so accessible and convenient in Rwanda.
These bottles, themselves, are yet another problem facing Rwanda. That is why Adam and I are filtering the majority of the water we drink rather than buying it in bottles.
Itafari has partnered with Crooked Trails for the 2007 Tour of Hope. Crooked Trails is a non-profit, community-based travel organization helping people broaden their understanding of the planet and its diverse cultures through education, community development, and responsible travel. It was Chris MacKay, founder of Crooked Trails, who suggested we filter our own water. What a foreign concept to this non-camper! But after serious discussion with her, I agreed.
The impact of plastic on Rwanda’s environment is devastating. The Rwandan government has banned the use of plastic bags in Rwanda. It is strongly suggested that you not bring them into the country (and by strongly I mean a sign at the airport politely suggests you bring no plastic bags into the country). But non-biodegradable water bottles are everywhere. They pollute the environment.
As a traveler, I could easily ignore the issues of pollution and poor water sources. Imagine going on a vacation to Florida, settling into your hotel, and a hurricane blows up the Gulf. You’re inconveniently moved to an elementary school shelter, your vacation is “ruined,” and you have a hassle getting out of the airport. Eventually you return home no worse for the wear, and certainly not needing to clean up from a disaster that was not yours. But if Florida had been your home, the aftermath for you would have been entirely different.
Similarly, it can be all too easy for travelers to Rwanda to experience an artificial sense that everything is fine in Rwanda…just a bit inconvenient.
The preconceived ideas we have as we travel or prepare to experience something new will change what the experience actually becomes. Novelist and philosopher Walker Percy described the phenomenon by which travelers measure their experience against expectations, finding, for instance, the Grand Canyon beautiful “by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex.” No sightseer, he claims, will ever be able to really see the canyon in the way of the explorer who first discovered it because the experience has been co-opted and packaged. We compound our dissociation by signing up for tours, following the guides, and busily snapping photographs, and we struggle against a nagging sense that something is missing.
I understand that sense of something missing and I am diligent to remove the feeling through experiences that are not comfortable or expected by me. I cannot deny that I am a 50-year-old traveler who prefers the comfort of a hot shower to waking up in the middle of a jungle finding a large bug on me that I could never have imagined lived in this world. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But my environment of Rwanda deserves a fresh set of eyes, expectations, and experiences. I can let go of the western way of thinking and become more in tune with my environment.
I can filter my water.
In a week, the visitors from Portland will arrive for the Tour of Hope. I cannot wait to show them – and you, through this blog – a Rwanda that will exceed their expectations and amaze them at the strength and character of a people who experience daily challenges that we do not know in America. They – and you, I hope – will be changed forever and better for this knowledge.
We are here to make a difference. Itafari is doing its part.
In Kigali, it’s easy to forget the seriousness of the water problem – and that the easy accessibility of bottled water is, in itself, a problem. But what we conveniently forget today will be tomorrow’s heartache. As a world, we conveniently looked the other way when a terrible genocide broke out 13 years ago. We are conveniently looking away in Darfur and the Sudan as another tragedy unfolds.
Stephan Rechtschaffen said it best: “We…anticipate what’s to come and ignore what’s actually here.”
Our coming to Rwanda is about making a different impact on this country. One that I would want if I were Rwandan. A “do NO harm” mentality…in fact, a “do GOOD” mentality.
- Itafari is definitely doing good!
- We’re going to break ground on the Kigali Parents Secondary (High School) on this trip.
- We will buy more baskets from Gahaya Links to sell at our Pay It Forward fundraising events.
- We will visit the 120 children whose lives have been changed through our child sponsorship program.
- We will distribute goats to child-headed households to change their lives and the other children for whom they care.
- And we will meet with the loan recipients from the microloan programs we support.
As my dear friend Joy, founder of Gahaya Links, always says: “Can you imagine?”
Rwanda is a country determined to overcome the label of the genocide of 1994. The government and its people are forward thinking. The past is not forgotten, but they are intent on a new future – one that honors those who died more by action than by grief.
You can make a difference with two things: money and a right attitude. The best impact is made when the two work in concert. Consider giving to our programs. Look at Adam’s blog for incredible pictures capturing the stories and spirit of this land.
And continue to stay tuned to more stories of significance from which you can take personal wisdom and change your own life.
Murebeho (goodbye in Kinyarwanda) for now,