Things ended up accelerating well beyond our expectations. The busyness we had predicted for our last two weeks definitely become a reality. We even missed our last three regular Sunday blog posts! The truth is, we are writing this during our four-hour layover on our journey home. We will spare you the emotional conclusion to this life-changing adventure for now, and instead use this post to look back and review the events that led up to our departure.
Two weekends ago, Faraz (whose family set up the centre 10 years ago) and his mother arrived in Kigali for three days. We have been working closely with Faraz, advising him of our impressions and observations at the centre. Together we have been trying to figure out what the best way forward for the centre is and what actions are most needed. A recent announcement from the Rwandan government that they plan to close all orphanages and street children centers caused a lot of anxiety and indiscipline amongst boys. They started fearing that they would end up on the street again. Luckily, Faraz had a meeting with a representative from the National Commission for Children. The outcome was positive. The government has a long-term plan, so the centre will not close any time soon (at least for another 5–10 years) and the person heading the commission is very interested to work with the centre to find the best possible solutions for the children who find themselves in this precarious situation. The news was welcomed by the boys (and ourselves) with a great sigh of relief.
We had a meeting with Faraz to discuss various aspects of the centre and offer our view and input. Sadly, this was our last meeting with him as on-site volunteers, but our involvement and support from overseas is unlikely to cease! We also had the pleasure of meeting Faraz's mother, who herself is a psychotherapist. For a while now, we have been discussing the issue of offering wider support and therapy to the boys, most of whom have been abused in many ways. Faraz's mother has kindly agreed to help establish and oversee such help and we hope that this will take the centre to the next level. The poverty from which these boys have come has been alleviated, their basic needs are being met, they have access to healthcare and education. It is an amazing achievement and a great success. But no great success should mean that one should rest on their laurels. We have become all too-aware of severe and complex trauma in some of the boys, which would best be helped and dealt with by trained and compassionate professionals. Faraz, with his mother's support, is now working to provide that for the boys and by doing so, will be helping them heal the scars, which are invisible on the surface. This is a very positive and exciting new turn for EDD and we will be anxious to see how it progresses.
We have previously mentioned our concerns about boys remaining at the centre for too long, losing their survival skills and becoming dependent on EDD. We have also discussed that issue at length with Faraz and a decision was made that more focus will be given to preparation for re-entering society, the family and even adulthood – another great step forward.
Some boys are lucky enough to have families, with whom they may be reintegrated. Last week, we spent a day in the field. We joined a social worker on her trip to make some home visits with to the families of three older boys, who are about to enter secondary school. As usual, as soon as we think we have somehow got our heads around things in Africa, we get put right back in our place again.
We drove for about an hour-and-a-half on an asphalt road, past Gitarama, before turning off onto a dirt road. We maneuvered around holes and treacherous turns as we climbed the steep "thousand hills" of the country. We drove past rice fields and coffee plantations, and deep into the dust-covered rural Rwanda. We finally came to our first stop and had to walk down a narrow path, along a steep hillside, and out to two small homes surrounded by absolutely nothing except for the most breathtaking view of green hills and mountains as far as the eye could see. This is where the family of one of our 18-year old EDD boys live. His mother lives there alone in a tiny two-room hut made of sticks and mud. His uncle lives in the second house. The poverty here is excruciating but amazingly mixed with personal warmth and kindness offered to us as guests. The hut is literally in the middle of nowhere, which was a drastic contrast to the urban situations we had seen previously. We were amazed by the silence and peacefulness of the place. Nothing to spoil the view over the mountains, no electricity lines, factory chimneys, buildings – nothing, absolutely nothing. The sound of the wind was soothing and beautiful. The mother is very poor and her husband is currently in prison. She has no other children apart from our EDD resident, so she manages to scrape by with basic foods she can grow by her house (she has no proper farming land) and takes on ad-hoc jobs during the coffee picking season. Her bedroom is her kitchen and the other room, into which you enter, is completely empty. The floor is made of dirt. There is literally nothing in the house, just a bed made of a few wooden boards, a makeshift charcoal stove next to it and a piece of string where a few clothes hang. It was shocking and heartbreaking to see. Many questions were buzzing in my head, such as, "How could we conceive reintegrating this boy with his family?"
His chances for a better life here are slim. He does love his mother though and perhaps one day, thanks to his education, their lives will improve. A beautiful thing happened during our short visit. The boy in question performed his song "ntawe uzagusimbura" for his relatives and friends. Bret recorded the song for the Kigali Street Kidz album, and Eric Biondo produced some lovely music for it. We brought an MP3 player and some small speakers to play it. The boy sang along, and it was great to see him so proud and happy.
On all three family visits we were met with extreme curiosity and warmth from the local communities. White people rarely come to these remote places, so we stuck well out. On our second visit, a large group of children gathered around us, eager to see a white person up-close, touch our hands in the welcome gesture, or test their few English words. While I was taking part in the family conversation along with the social worker, an extremely loud and wild laughter dragged me outside into the sun. Bret was dancing for the children while they held the camera to record him in action. Seeing those poor boys and girls, whose lives are hard and grim, laugh so hard, their laughter so innocent and unspoilt, I was overwhelmed with joy. It was contagious too! Boys and girls of no more than three or four-years-old, whom we had just seen carrying jerry cans of water along the road, or small stacks of bricks (4 to 6 units) on their heads, were having pure fun just looking at Bret. It is amazing what a few bboy moves can do…what a little laughter can do. It was hard to leave this bunch.
We then headed to our last house, and this time I decided to remain outside. So many children had started running up from neighbouring huts, that I just wanted to be there, say hello, ask them their names and give them some proper attention. They were all truly wonderful, with faces that look at you with such intensity that you feel your heart beat faster. I felt this amazing potential in all of them, yet was painfully aware that so few of them would ever realise it. I thought about their smiles and just tried to focus on that instead. These smiles, running around, giggling and whispering to each other about the white woman, are all happy moments, when they can forget reality. They can forget that the only food they will get that day is the raw potato they find on the ground, that their clothes are dirty and torn, that they have no shoes, no toys and no water to drink.
It is impossible for us to forget all this. It is hard not to think about the inequalities and injustices. All we can do is hope that these children will make it, that their resilience will help them through. Many of these thoughts were running through my head, forcing tears into my eyes and guilt into my conscience. I could not help but think that in two weeks I will be in busy London, at my favourite cheap Chinese eatery, catching up with friends – that MY life will go on – my good life – my easy life. I apologise if I sound gloomy or serious but my heart is heavy.
There was a lovely element to the third home visit. I met an elderly lady who was trying to chat with me. After a while, she ran off and brought some carrots to show me. She then invited me over to her house, where her husband and her had a 12-kg bag of carrots they had just dug up from their plot. Bret and I could maybe buy a kilo, but seeing how lovely these people were and how hard they had worked for this crop, I decided to buy the carrots for our boys at the centre. This made the couple very happy as it saved them from having to go many miles with the heavy bag to the market in order to sell the carrots. After we sealed the deal and the carrots landed at the back of our truck, I asked if we could take a photo of the couple. They gracefully agreed, but the lady made a sudden dash towards their home. She re-appeared several minutes later, wearing a clean top and a fresh headdress. It made me laugh as it proved that women are the same everywhere, regardless of their wealth, social status, nationality, place of residence, etc. We all want to look GOOD in the photo!
We returned home late in the afternoon, tired after withstanding the long and bumpy drive. Overall, we felt good that the boys had a chance to visit their families, and more importantly, that they were genuinely happy for having done so. We were also happy that we got to see these amazing places and meet these wonderful people in these tiny communities. These people have very little and could easily have chosen to ignore us because we are so different, but instead, they welcomed us and showed us kindness.
At the end of the week the weather had been acting up. Unusually for this time of the year (dry season), we had some heavy rain and even a serious storm. A ribbon of lightning tearing across the huge African sky is quite a sight. Not long after, the sun comes out and the humidity is back. It seems bizarre that the weather pattern has changed so suddenly, and it reflects how I feel at the moment. I am not sure if I have ever been so torn in my life. Even when I was moving to another country and leaving my whole family behind, I did not feel such sadness. It is just like that rain or the storm – coming over me without much warning. I feel my throat tighten and my eyes well up. Anything can make me feel that way – the last days are inevitably more sentimental. I may be walking down the street and a bus conductor will call me over to his bus and I respond in Kinyarwanda and he sends me a beaming smile (even though my answer is no). It may be a lady who begs on the street in a wheelchair by our house, whom I greet every day and exchange pleasantries in Kinyarwanda. It may be a trip to the market, where ladies from whom I have been buying fruit, veg and sundries over the past four months call me their 'friend', chat with me, never overcharge me and invite me to their homes. Yes, it is all these things, and there are of course our boys. They know we are leaving and they are sad. But they are also extremely kind, smart and understanding. They write us the most mature thank you notes, tell us their life stories, laugh and play with us. Many of them have only recently opened up fully and it feels amazing to have that connection, but at the same time it hurts so much that we will leave them so soon, that we cannot stay here any longer. Doubts often come over me as I try to figure out whether what we have done is good in the long-run, or was it just too brief, too superficial. When I see some of the boys smile, when I hear the ones who could not utter a word in English, speak it and even correct other ones, when I see them draw furiously for hours, I hope that our stay has not been without benefits for them and without giving them more hope and confidence.
One thing is certain – Faraz summed it up pretty well – we are now part of the EDD family and as with our own birth families – we are stuck with each other. These boys will remain in our hearts forever and as our last week with them approaches, we will have a lot of fun and plenty more to write about before we sign off from Rwanda.