At the end of our penultimate day at placement, our team of four walked down the road from Centre Marembo hoping to reach Les Enfants de Dieu. My eyes wandered past the long stretch of the red road ahead of me and in the distance I saw a mosaic of hills, banana trees, and terra cotta rooftops which I had never seen before. Every morning, our van rolled on up that same road and back down when evening came but somehow there were so many things I had never noticed.
At that moment, I fully realized that no matter how many days I spend in Rwanda, there will always be new features of this country and its people to encounter. Now that the journey is drawing to a rapid close, a montage of jokes and stories shared at the dinner table, goodbye hugs and thanks at Marembo, and the sound of the drums accompanying traditional dance plays on repeat in my head while I pack my luggage.
It seems like just a few days ago, when at our arrival we were all at the College of Medicine and Health Sciences (University of Rwanda) sitting with the Principal Dr. Jeanne Kagwiza, Professor Firmard Sabimana, Bosco Ford, and Eric Niyikiza, and sharing our individual expectations of our time in Rwanda. Friday night’s farewell dinner brought us to sit with the Principal and staff of CMHS once again but also with the directors and staff of our centres: Caritas Kigali, Centre Marembo, and Les Enfants de Dieu.
Only after hearing their kind words and heartfelt goodbye speeches, I finally understood that my last week in Rwanda was almost over. Five weeks have gone by too fast, to say the least! But the short five weeks will have been an incredible learning opportunity for my classmates and me.
One of the phrases used at our goodbye dinner will always come to mind when I think of Rwanda –a second home– and while I prefer to avoid the sound of goodbye, I can only truly say:
On June 16th, 2016 at Caritas, Kigali the student volunteers from the Centre had the pleasure of participating in “The Day of the African Child.” Hundreds of children gathered at the Centre and celebrated the rights of the child as well as the children’s talents. It was a truly wonderful event and the children were even treated to a Fanta of their choice, giving already happy and energetic children more sugar, but they enjoyed themselves and the extra energy!
This event has been celebrated every year since 1991 when first implemented by the Organisation of African Union (OAU) after the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa. It honours that children everywhere, particularly in Africa, are entitled to a home, an education, and a happy life. The centres we work at here in Rwanda are all trying to do just that and promote healthy lifestyles for their children as they are all victims of violence too, and who deserve the same educational opportunities as every child in the world.
As a volunteer service learning participant I got to watch the children at my Centre in Nyamirambo prepare a play and a set of songs to perform at the event. The children were so excited to perform and sang the songs all week long whether in practice or during free time. There was also traditional dancing done by the older children and speeches done by the priest and various social workers. In these speeches the adults invited the children to share their stories as a street child and how they are overcoming the stereotype and trying to gain an education with the help of Caritas.
It is beautiful to watch children who have so little and deserve so much get a day to celebrate their uniqueness, value, and successes. I hope to continue to celebrate “The Day of the African Child” every June 16 from now until forever.
To learn more about the Africa-wide celebration view the link below:
While many other students have written about the incredible experience we have had at our respective centers, I just wanted to take the time to express our gratitude towards the College of Medicine and Health Sciences (CMHS), our incredible sponsors in Rwanda for the last 7 years. Without their help and support, none of the work that we have done over the last 5 weeks could have been possible. From the very beginning of our journey back in Canada, they have been supporting us by inviting us into the country and ensuring that our visas get processed swiftly. Although we do not directly volunteer with the College, the amount of hospitality that their incredible team has shown us since we arrived has made our team feel so welcomed. As my classmate Sean has mentioned in his previous blog post, the College was there at 3am in the morning to greet us at the airport and since then, they have organized many activities for us to enhance our experience while in Rwanda.
Last weekend for example, we were invited by the College to visit a school for the visually impaired which our entire team greatly enjoyed. The College has also taken time out of their incredibly busy schedule to sit with our team on multiple occasions to help us reflect on the work we have been doing at our centers as well as on the country’s reconstruction over the last 21 years. During these reflections, we were able to meet with the principal of the College of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dr. Jeanne Kagwiza as well as with her team which was an absolute honor. We were also fortunate enough to meet with Dr. Phil Cotton, the former principle of CMHS and the current vice chancellor of the University of Rwanda. Dr. Cotton spoke to us about the work that the University of Rwanda is doing to enhance post-secondary education as in the country. This talk was incredibly inspiring for our team and we were all thrilled that he was kind enough to meet with us.
On Friday, the staffs at CMHS were also gracious enough to host a farewell dinner for us at the Nobleza Hotel in Kigali and presented our team with certificates. Thanks to the help of CMHS, our entire team has had a truly magnificent experience and we will never be able to thank them enough for their kindness and hospitality.
The rights of a child are no less important than the rights held by any adult, especially the right to live in safety, free from violence and abuse. Centre Marembo is incredibly familiar with this message, as it aims to promote the rights of children in its everyday work.
The Centre was founded in 2003 and has evolved to specialize in providing a home, healthcare, and education for young girls. On our first visit to Marembo, co-founder Nicolette Nsabimana told us the story of a young girl living on the street with a child Nicolette discovered to be the girl’s own. Our time here has shown us that there are many reasons a child may turn to life on the street, but Marembo has changed many lives by opening its doors – the very meaning of the Kinyarwanda word marembo – to girls residing on the streets of Kigali.
During our first few weeks at Centre Marembo, our work revolved heavily around organizing the Centre’s annual Advocacy Day (link to Advocacy Day post?). The goal of the day was to raise awareness about how children’s rights are violated, specifically here in Kigali, and aimed to eradicate the blaming of children for the violence and abuse committed against them. Each of us were assigned a different task from greeting guests to transcribing speeches, and we worked with Nicolette and the rest of the Marembo team to ensure the day went smoothly and was as successful as possible.
Following Advocacy Day, the Centre launched a citywide campaign travelling to the smaller, more impoverished districts in and around Kigali to continue spreading their message. Representatives from the Gender Monitoring Office and Les Enfants de Dieu, another Centre where some of our students have been working, joined us to speak about issues regarding drugs and alcohol abuse, education, and the responsibilities a parent has to their children. We heard many heartfelt stories, translated from Kinyarwanda by Marembo’s translator, Jean Bosco “Bright,” who sat with us each day of the campaign. Each of these stories and communities made the issues presented on Advocacy Day more real and tangible; one young boy of about 5-years-old explained how he was not attending school because his mother had left, and his father’s job allowed for only his two older brothers to receive an education. The boy’s clothing, we noticed, was shabbier than the rest of the children, and we discovered that he spent most of the day at home alone while his father was working. When asked what he wanted most, the boy said he wished to go to school. “And?” Nicolette prompted. The boy wanted food on the table, a new pair of shoes, and some nicer clothes so as not to seem so different from the rest of the children. Nicolette put her arm around the boy and, after the speakers had done their piece, she reclaimed the microphone and announced that with the help of the community leader, they would personally be making sure the boy received an education and he had clothes to wear to school. This, of all the incredible moments of the campaign, stuck out to me; because of this campaign, a young boy will receive an education.
Since the end of the campaign, our group has been teaching English to the girls at the Centre and working to update the Centre’s website and as an MIT student, much of the website revamp fell into my hands. After reformatting and updating, the site has a new look that I hope will contribute to the future success of Marembo by providing information for those who may not even know the Centre exists, let alone the incredible work it does for the people of Kigali.
Working at Centre Marembo this past month has really opened my eyes to the injustices that are present across the globe; even children in Canada face abuse and violence. This is not an issue for Rwanda alone. I hope my last week will continue to show me how much of a difference on action can make, and that when we return to Canada, we remember that even small actions, like picking a boy out of a crowd and buying him a pair of shoes, can have a huge impact. Sure, a pair of shoes may not change the world, but they changed that boy’s world, and I hope he wears them proudly.
For over three weeks now Misha and I have been working at a Caritas location in the Nyamirambo district of Kigali. This is one of the four placement sites for our Team’s five week experiential learning in Rwanda.
Caritas is an international NGO, run by locals, which takes in children who are found living on the street due to either poverty at home or a family conflict. They provide the children with classroom education, food, and a safe environment to play induring the day. The children then return to their home at night, the same home they left behind in hopes of finding a better life on the streets. Caritas works closely with the families as well. Some of the poorer families are provided with money, and all families are advised on how to successfully receive and reintegrate their child back at home after they have been rehabilitated at the centre.
The centre coordinators and teachers have so much love and compassion for the children. Learning how to cooperate with and respect for others is perhaps the most important part of the children’s rehabilitation. The teachers demonstrate a very delicate balance between discipline and encouragement, both of which the children have lacked growing up.
I am finding it more and more difficult to believe that these incredibly joyful and intelligent children who I have gotten to know so well are the same ones who spent so much of their time growing up on the streets. All of the negative preconceived notions I had of “street kids” are being challengedas I slowly discover their personalities. They are children just like any others. They possess limitless energy, are full of joy, and are far more intelligent than their lack of formal education would lead some to assume.
Initially, I was amazed at how much these children reminded me of any other children. However, after getting to know them better, I have noticed that they have lacked role models in their young lives. It did not take long for the children to feel comfortable with Misha and me, and quickly they became very affectionate and attention-seeking. They love being loved, and they need to be loved. Needless to say, the love and attention the children receive from the coordinator and the teachers at the centre are very important.
Furthermore, I have found is that they seem to be very mature and independent in many ways. They have had to grow up way too quickly on the streets. Their survival on the streets has depended on their ability to look after themselves, which leads to having to stick up for themselves verbally and physically. This instinct that they have developed is evident in their behaviour. When resolving conflicts, they will forcefully argue through them, and although it may seem overly physical to me, it is simply their way of sorting things out. There is no doubt that the children have a high level of empathy for each other, and conflicts are very often resolved respectfully.
The stigma of “street children” needs to be changed. It implies that the future of these children will inevitably result in failure. This outlook is the exact reason why these negative stereotypes are so prominent. If the children are loved, cared for, and given the same opportunities as most children in the world, I have no doubt that they are capable of being among the most influential and productive members of society.
Our group was feeling tired but excited as we touched down at Kigali International Airport. Though it was 2 a.m. by the time we got our bags, Professor Firmard Sabimana and Eric Niyikiza, both from the College of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Rwanda, were there waiting outside to welcome us. We arrived at Centre St. Paul just after 3 a.m., and were again met with open arms as the nuns had prepared a hot meal for us.
The warm welcome continued on Thursday as we met with the directors of our three partner NGO’s – Caritas Kigali, Centre Marembo, and Les Enfants de Dieu (EDD). All three organizations work to rehabilitate children found living on the streets in Kigali.
At Caritas, we were met by Josianne Mushashi, the organization’s director. She told us about their organization and the work that they do to rehabilitate and reintegrate the children back into their families. The children at Caritas were out in the yard singing and dancing. We stayed to play with them for a while, feeling increasingly insecure about our own dancing abilities. We then piled back into the van to head to Centre Marembo.
Once at Marembo, our team was greeted by Nicolette Nsabimana, the director and founder of the Centre, as well as her incredible team of staff. They told us about the work that Marembo does to rehabilitate and reintegrate girl’s who have formerly been living on the streets and who have often been the victims of domestic and sexual violence. We were also invited to attend Marembo’s second annual Advocacy Day, an event which focuses on creating a dialogue about children’s rights amongst Rwandan society.
Finally, we headed down the road to EDD, an all-boys rehabilitation centre. At EDD, children who were once living on the streets are provided with food, education, and a place where they can just be kids. Charles Hazabintwali, the director of EDD, gave us a tour of the centre. Our group visited the classrooms, where many children mistook Max for Jonah, who volunteered at the centre last year.
On Friday, we met with Dr. Jeanne Kagwiza, the Principal of the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Rwanda. She was very excited to meet our group and hear about our first impressions of Rwanda. We also discussed what we wish to accomplish during our stay here.
That evening we welcomed Professor Julia Emberley and Professor Nandi Bhatia to Centre St. Paul. They joined us for the next 10 days to see the work that we are doing and to explore Kigali. Though perhaps a little jet lagged, they were excited to join us – and we did our best to welcome them in the same way that our Rwandan hosts had welcomed us.
On our first Saturday, we visited both the UN Belgian Soldiers Monument and the National Genocide Museum. It was a day for us to reflect on the tragedy that occurred in this country in 1994, as well as to reflect on the extraordinary recovery that has taken place in the 21 years since.
On Sunday, our team took a road trip to Butare to visit the Rwandan Historical Museum. We got to experience the beautiful Rwandan countryside and learn about Rwanda’s history and culture. On our way home, those that weren’t sound asleep after a long day witnessed a breathtaking sunset – the perfect way to end our first week in Rwanda.
The following Monday, we started our first week of work. We each arrived at our respective placements with our own fears and apprehensions, unsure of what the next month would bring. But by Friday, none of us could stop talking about the children and staff that we had met.
On Friday, our group was fortunate to be able to attend Centre Marembo’s Annual Advocacy Day. Many local NGO’s, high school students, and government officials gathered together to discuss why children are being forced to live on the streets, and how the country can collectively work to prevent that from happening. The event was incredibly eye opening, and both the students and the professors gained incredible insight about the fight to promote children’s rights in Rwanda.
This past weekend, our team took time to prepare our lessons for the following week and reflect on what we have learned so far through our placements. We’re looking forward to our second week of placements and our trip next weekend to Lake Kivu.