Just the Beginning by Nancy Lasseter RSF Director
Uwacu stood out in the crowd. Of the fifty children playing on the grounds of the clinic, he was the one with a toy. Masterfully rolling an old bike tire around the lawn with a stick, running barefoot in the grass, spinning the tire and grinning, he was clearly intent on enjoying his young life, no matter what rolled his way. Later I noticed him again. This time he was doing a series of cartwheels and flips. Uwacu, we would learn later, was nine years old although, judging by his size, I thought him to be only five or six. Malnutrition, I was told when I asked why he was so tiny. “Not enough to eat.”
It was our first day at Murara clinic. We arrived sweaty and thirsty, courtesy of the rugged Red Cross truck that rattled us down a very long dusty dirt road. Murura village has little. Lining the road to the clinic were neat mudbrick homes. The dusty front yards are swept carefully and landscaped with a few of the many tropical plants that grow with ease here, that is, if the rainfall is generous. Located in Western Rwanda in a town called Gisenyi, it borders the DRC, the Congo.
We came as a group of nurses and artists to service the people in the Rubavu district. We came bearing 100 pounds each of medical supplies, with some art supplies mixed in. We offered medical assistance and healthcare training. Our artists offered health-related art programs: murals, pictograms, and plays designed to teach basic healthcare principles and to support the well-being of the community.
Back to the clinic. “Mzungus!” (Foreigners!), the children squealed in excited delight, following us closely everywhere we went, smiling and laughing. After we greeted them with hellos and how are you’s in Kinyarwandan, they chanted back to us in sweet unison “Nemeza!” which means, “I am fine”.
At one point in the day, I asked the group of children playing nearby if anyone would like to sing and dance. This is not an unusual request. The children often break into a spontaneous and joyful combustion of sound and movement. On this day, Uwacu was the sole brave child of the group who was willing to dance and sing. Wearing a completely tattered blue shirt that revealed his distended belly, his mouth was nonetheless full of smiles. In his tiny, soft voice he sang the popular song “Inkoramutima.”
That day I asked our interpreter Simone why Uwacu wasn’t in school. Simone said that it was because his family couldn’t afford the cost of a uniform and books. This comes to about $20 per year. Simone, I said, “I would like to get Uwacu in school.” Simone said okay to this idea and asked Uwacu where he lived. Uwacu pointed to a cornfield growing close to the clinic and said his house was nearby. He told Simone that he lived with his Aunt and that his parents had died. I wrote down what little information we had gathered.
Near the end of my three weeks in Gisenyi, it was time to find Uwacu. I had developed a close, trusting relationship with our interpreter Felix: “Felix, I would like to get Uwacu in school. How can I do this?” I described the vicinity of Uwacu’s house. (..”near the cornfield by the clinic..”) Felix said clearly and without hesitation ”We will go to his house and talk to his Aunt.”
Finally the day arrived. Jean Bosco, the Director of the International Red Cross Western Province, was kind enough to drive Felix and I to the Murara area. As we left the truck, Felix asked an approaching child “Where does Uwacu live?” The child led us slowly down the pot-holed, dusty road to Uwacu’s house. We Mzungus had adapted to the Rwandan pace: slow, easy, deliberate, unwavering. “Have patience, “ we were reminded at times. “What is your hurry?”
Uwacu was at home playing with other children, supervised by a young woman. She told us that his Aunt Odette was not home. She was finding work in Goma, DRC, across the border and would be home on Saturday. She welcomed us inside the house where we could talk privately, as a large group of curious children were now standing nearby. The home was small, dark and cool inside. It was decorated with torn posters of pop stars Brittany Spears and Michael Jackson. There were also strings of crayon- colored drawings and schoolwork hanging across the living room.
I gave Uwacu and his family a few small presents: toothbrushes, a notebook, pencils and pens in a small carrying case, a stuffed tiger, some paper and crayons. Now he had two toys. Uwacu smiled, bowing his head, shy but grateful. We made an appointment to come back to see Aunt Odette on Saturday morning.
After we left Odette’s home, Felix remarked to me: “Nancy, it is good to put Uwacu in school. He will be happy there. But still his belly is empty. His mother does not have adequate work to feed her children. How long will Uwacu be able to stay in school before he is asked to drop out to find work to support the family? Why not consider giving some money to Odette to help her start a business?”
We arrived that Saturday morning by bike taxi. Felix and I were both surprised by whom we found there. We were greeted by Jacqueline Barera, a nurse we knew from the Murara health clinic. We were very happy to see one another. The home where Uwacu, his brother and his Aunt Odette live is shared with Jacque’s family. As a staff member of Murara, she has free rent on this home. She was kind enough to take in Odette and her two boys when she learned of their difficulty in making ends meet.
Uwacu’s parents both died of HIV. His mother passed away when he was 1 ½ years old.
Another coincidence was revealed: not only did we know Jacque, we knew one of her children, Moses. Moses is 18 years old and is an artist. He had been painting murals with our team as a volunteer for days. We had grown to love him like a son.
Felix spent a half hour discussing Odette’s business proposal with Jacque and Odette. Later Felix told me that he had informed and received consent from Odette regarding the proposal guidelines and limitations. The funds were designated strictly for Uwacu’s schooling and Odette’s new business. Odette told Felix that she wanted to sell produce from a stand to be erected in front of her house along the street. The proximity of the house to the clinic meant that it would have great exposure to many potential customers. Odette also chose to raise pigs and build a pen for them.
We entrusted the funds to Jacqui. She was happy to supervise Odette’s business project. For $100 US dollars, Uwacu started school and Odette is selling produce and is raising her pigs. When I left Rwanda, I felt excited about what had happened for Uwacu and his family. This is why I came, I told myself.
A week later, Felix went to Rubavu 1school and took a photo of Uwacu there. Using Facebook, Felix sent photos of Odette with her new produce stand, her scale, pigpen and pig! Moses has reported by email that Uwacu is learning to read and write.
Due to the success of this model, Felix and I considered launching a project that will offer these opportunities to other families. This is what has happened. In just six weeks time, we have 8 more children in school and 4 families that are getting businesses together.
Felix is the Rubavu Sustainable Families (RSF) Project Manager. I have taken on the role of Director and have discovered a terrific team. Felix is reliable, very capable, and is extremely resourceful. Jacque is continuing to identify families in need. When families are identified, they are assessed for their capability to sustain their business. The families who receive support are asked to share their startup business plan and their future business goals.
We are asking all families to pay forward 50% of the funds that they receive. This way they are helping their community. We have a RSF support group in the Rubavu District office, supporting a comfortable flow of business ideas and encouragement between the villagers. This will also become the place where they make their pay forward payments and discuss issues with Felix.
Most of the children identified thus far are not with their parents but live with their aunts, grandmothers, or have been accepted into other families. Many of their parents are deceased.
Donations of $125 will support one child in school, will fund a business for the child’s guardian and will support management for the program. We thank you for your generous support. Please email Nancy at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.