Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rwandan Centers for Street Children

There are no actual statistics on how many children live on the streets in Rwanda, but estimates range from a few hundred to several thousand. Children living on the streets have low school attendance, poor hygiene and around 80% are believed to be on some kind of drugs (alcohol, tobacco, solvents, marijuana). Most children seen on the streets actually return to some kind of home in the evening often bringing back part of their earnings to a parent or guardian. There are also many children who have been orphaned by parents who died of AIDS and a generation of children who are now in their young 20’s who’s parents were murdered in the genocide. The Rwandan government has created with UNICEF’s technical assistance guidelines to prevent, protect and reintegrate children living on the street. We visited two centers that cater to street children with UNICEF that are working to reinsert children into their families and do parenting education for the adults or offer an alternative family care structure with possibilities for vocational facilities that help vulnerable children. The first site we visited is not currently being funded by UNICEF because of limited funding, but they are intending to make it into a model center for which the government can then copy and create themselves. It’s very important for Rwandans, and really for any people, to have pride in their country and see that help is coming from the country itself and not just foreigners swooping down with money. This is a key concept that UNICEF recognizes and in countries with stable governments they work alongside the government to implement all their aid. Visiting the Gitagata center was like seeing a “before picture” of how these center’s were being handled in the past and then getting to see the second center called OPDE that UNICEF has been working with and funding was like seeing the “after picture” of the amazing achievements that are capable of being done in these centers.

Gitagata takes in children 7-12 years old collected from the streets by police and gives them a home and education. There are dormitories, a kitchen, dining hall, bathrooms, fields for sports, benches for outdoor classes, and fields for growing maize and carrots, which are both eaten by the children and sold to raise money for the center. The center also has a few cows that they use for milk to both drink and sell. The center was built on the grounds of an old prison and still had a very prison-like feeling. The walls that surround the complex are still topped with barbed wire and the bathrooms are outdoors and not up to hygienic standards yet. The dorms do not have great ventilation and no lighting, all things that will be improved as UNICEF works with them. The center only caters to boys right now, although a few girls come during the day, but building dorms for girls is also one of the improvements UNICEF is working on.


Seeing the dorms of the center was an incredible experience reminding me how universal all children are. They were large rooms full of bunk beds and mosquito nets and the walls were covered in the children’s personal paper clippings and notes. They looked like the walls of any American teenager’s room with pictures of their favorite things ripped out of magazines, their favorite drawings and school papers. School papers is probably the one item missing from American teenagers walls- it makes it on their parents fridge, but many American students see school as a necessity that they have to get through. In Rwanda there is such a craving for knowledge and education because education is a luxury and every child I met had an incredible thirst for knowledge, they just needed the tools to learn. We talked with one young boy in his dorm who had been living on the streets of Kigali and was brought in to the center two years ago and was now learning English (Rwanda recently switched from French to English as their national language spoken in addition to Kinyarwanda) and dreams of becoming a pilot, a dream that would have no chance of coming true if he had stayed on the streets.


The second center we visited called OPDE was a wonderful example of what Gitagata can become with UNICEF’s help. The center has two campuses that we visited which provide clean dormitories for children who need them with proper hygiene facilities in the bathrooms. The centers also send the kids to school in two shifts as is done in all of Rwanda because there aren’t enough schools for the amount of children and provides vocational training for the older kids. For the most part the boys live in the dorms at the center and girls are placed in homes with widows who are given support by the center that way the women and children are both supported. The center teaches parenting classes to adults, which over 50% of the adults in attendance take voluntarily.


The center is beautiful with bright blue walls painted with murals of happy animals and full of books and tools for learning. The center has a very nice kitchen and dining room and we got to watch them prepare their meals of beans, vegetables and rice. The center also has fields which they till for crops as well as a pond with fish, stables with cows and rabbits all of which they use both for feeding themselves and for selling to help bring in money to the center.


At the center we talked to a young man who was in college who was a former street child and had been at OPDE for many years. He is now studying to be a teacher and supporting his two younger sisters so they can also go to school. Success stories like his are very common at OPDE and are wonderful to witness firsthand.


Like at Gitagata all the children were so excited to learn and were all anxious to start their shift at school. I remember waking up dreading going to school and wishing I could stay in bed so many times when I was young. It is amazing what we take for granted here and the love of knowledge these young children have because even at 4 or 5 years old they know what a difference an education makes. One of my favorite experiences was playing with a group of kids waiting by the fence taking pictures and laughing with them while they waited for their school shift to start.



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