Rwandan Street Children

Orphans of the Genocide

Mr. P'Rayan teaches English at the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology, and Management. He is originally from Madras, India

orphan of Rwanda's genocide
Gato Asa, age 11 (Photo: Albert P'Rayan).

"Children are the wealth and pride of the family," says Jeanette, a corn vendor in Rwanda's capital city, Kigali. She should know. She stands at her stall in the marketplace, surrounded by her four youngest children, nursing a 10-month-old baby. She has seven more children, she says, now teenagers.

Jeannette doesn't know how old she is. She says that despite the difficulty of feeding so many children, she has never regretted having them. "They are God's gifts," she says, "He will look after them." She quotes a proverb in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's national language: "Umwana mi Umwami, a child is king."

In 1996, Rwanda's fertility index was one of the highest in the world, the product of a culture in which families of all social backgrounds typically have many children. Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which claimed an estimated 800,000 lives over the course of 100 days, left permanent scars on Rwanda, its culture, and its children. In what Philip Gourevitch—author of the critically-acclaimed book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families—called the fastest, most concentrated murder spree of the 20th century, Hutu militiamen, soldiers, and citizens hacked men, women, and children from Rwanda's Tutsi minority to death with machetes.

Humanitarian organizations report that the effects of the poverty and exploitation that followed the genocide have been most pronounced on children. A 1999 UNICEF study found that 96 percent of Rwandan children had witnessed the 1994 massacres. 80 percent had lost at least one family member. Hundreds of thousands were orphaned. Since 1994, AIDS has left thousands more orphaned, in what humanitarian workers have called "Rwanda's silent genocide." Survivors and witnesses say that Hutu extremists routinely used mass rape as a weapon, hastening the spread of AIDS. Today one in nine Rwandans is HIV-positive. As parents continue to die, the "wealth and pride" of many Rwandan families are left to wander the streets of the towns. Today, these children, called mayibobos, have become a ubiquitous sight in Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

Orphan of Rwanda's genocide
Sibomana Muhira , age 12 (Photo: Albert P'Rayan).

Judith is a tall, thin, 14-year-old girl. She is barefoot, and dressed in rags, but she holds herself with a breezy self-confidence. She owns nothing but a broad and lovely smile. She and a few other girls and boys of her age take shelter on the streets of Kigali. My interpreter—a young girl in one of my classes at the Kigali university where I teach—and I approach her, offering food and money in exchange for her time. It takes some time to earn Judith's trust, but my student is not much older than she is, and soon she is telling her story freely. I ask her to tell me about her childhood.

Judith says she was born in a rural village in southern Rwanda. After two years of school, her family kept her at home to help with household chores. Her mother died when Judith was nine years old. "My father is a drunkard," she says with evident bitterness. "Within four months after my mother's death he remarried another woman."

The pace of her narrative speeds up as she talks about her stepmother. As Judith's voice rises with emotion, my interpreter stops translating and just listens. Finally, she turns to me and summarizes: "She says her stepmother abused her and her siblings verbally and physically. Worse, she says, her father took side with her stepmother. She says that after the stepmother came, she and the other children were completely neglected. Her father was drunk and her stepmother saw the children as a burden. She says that after the stepmother arrived, their house became 'a hell,' that they were in 'deep misery:' They didn't have enough to eat, they didn't have proper clothing, and they didn't go to school."

I ask how she became a mayibobo.

"One by one all my elder sisters left home for the town [Kigali] in order to survive," she tells me. "They worked in different parts of Kigali as housemaids. One day my father and stepmother forced me and my brother to go to Kigali to find work like my sisters. That was two years ago. I was just 12 years old. We came to the main market in Kigali and spent three or fours days in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Sleeping on the street was really a horrible experience for me. I was just like an orphan though most of the members of my family were alive."

She pauses for a moment, remembering. "By God's grace," she says, "I came across a rich woman in the market who was ready to take me to her house and give me a job. Since my brother couldn't come with me, he decided to be a mayibobo. The woman's house was at Nyamirambo in Kigali. I was asked to look after her toddlers and to do other work such as cleaning the bathroom and washing clothes. She told me she would pay me 3,000 Rwandan francs (US$7.50) every month. Initially, I was so happy just to have a house to live in."

"As days went by," she continues, "I got accustomed to the new environment, but my happiness didn't last long." She shifts her weight uncomfortably and looks off to one side. My interpreter and I must cajole her to tell the rest of her story. Finally, she agrees, her face clouded with anger at her memories. My interpreter quickly becomes embarrassed listening to her, and cuts her off, telling her there's no need to continue. "She says that when her boss was gone, her boss' husband sexually abused her," I'm told. "She says she 'became prey to his lust.' This went on for two months. When her boss found out about the husband's behavior, Judith was sent away. She says she was never paid for the three months she worked at the rich woman's house."

I ask what happened to her after she left the rich woman's house. "I tried without luck to get some sort of similar work," she says. "I didn't know where to go, so I came to the market again. I met my brother and his friends and became a mayibobo. At least I am with them. Since that day, I've been on the street."

How is her life on the street? Is she happy there? Is there anyone to help her?

"I'm quite used to my street life. During the daytime I spend my time in the market. I help people carry their vegetable bags and get some money and at nights I sleep in front of any shop on the street. It is hard. The street is not a secure place for girls like me. We're hungry, we have no shelter, anybody can abuse us however they like. Nobody says anything."

I ask her if she's considered going to a shelter for street children. She says she's heard of the shelters, but that someone told her that children there "were treated like dirt," and that "they have no freedom at all."

I ask her if she knows what happened to her sisters. "I don't meet my sisters often," she tells me. "I don't know where they are working. Others have told me that they have become prostitutes. I'll never become a prostitute." I give her more money with thanks for her time. Before she goes she flashes another of her broad smiles.

Stories like Judith's are all too common. When Judith has finished telling her story, crowds of her friends flock around to tell theirs. Jean-Pierre, a friend of Judith's, lost his father in the genocide. His mother died of AIDS soon after. He and his brothers lived with relatives in the country for a few years, but two years ago, they were sent to Kigali to fend for themselves. They have lived on the streets around Kigali's main marketplace since. Twizey Mana Alphonse, age 16, pushes to the front of the crowd, his two adopted brothers—Gato Asa, age 11, and Siboma Muhirwa, age 12—in tow. Twizey's face is so covered in wounds that he can barely open his eyes. Flies buzz around the scabs on his face. The week before, he says, a vendor caught him stealing potatoes from his shop and beat him severely. He couldn't go to a hospital—no hospital would take him. "Such things are quite common for us," he says.

I ask whether they would be interested in going to school to learn some technical skills. I tell them they could stay with friends of mine. They show interest in going to school, but would rather stay on the streets while they study: "No, I don't want to come to your house," Twizey says, "You people will abuse me and I can't be happy there. Here I'm happy and free."

By this time a light rain had begun to fall. My interpreter and I take shelter in front of a market stall. We're soon surrounded by more mayibobos, "Give me money, give me some money, I'm hungry," they repeat, pulling at our sleeves. I give them 200 Rwandan francs and tell them to buy some food. They run off and, within minutes, return with small water bottles filled with gasoline. They take turns inhaling the gasoline fumes. Seeing my revulsion, a man who had watched the entire scene unfold by my side, tells me "These mayibobos are addicted to petrol and it is not good to give them money. You must be very careful when you talk to them. They are clever at stealing your mobile phones and other things from you."

Orphans of Rwanda's Genocide
Left to Right: Twizey Mana Alphonse, age 16, Sibomana Muhirwa, age 12, and Gato Asa, age 11 (Photo: Albert P'Rayan).

A few days later, while buying fruits and vegetables in the market, I discover he was right. Seeing me at the fruit stand, mayibobos surround me, asking if they can carry my shopping bag. "No," I say, "The bag is not heavy." As I take out my purse to pay for the groceries, one of the boys attracts my attention, while another nimbly snatches a few bills. When I look into the purse, I notice the bills are missing. The boy starts running. I shout after him, and the crowds in the market catch him. I plead with his captors not to beat the boy or to turn him over to the police.

"It's not good to feel pity for them," one of the captors says darkly.

"Merci Beaucoup," the boy says with a small bow before disappearing into the crowd.

A few weeks later, I visit the Centre Abeda Cogora, a Dominican mission in Kigali run by Fr. Giles Marius Dion, a French-Canadian Dominican friar. For 25 years, Dion has worked with Rwanda's street children, learning to speak Kinyarwanda fluently and establishing three missions to cater to the children's needs. Every day, some 300 children come to the centers from around the city, are fed a meal, and are sent to school. Social workers seek out the children's families. If possible, they work to reunite the children with their families. Other times, they try to place the mayibobos in foster care. But Dion says that perhaps 50 percent of the children he sees do not want to be placed in a foster home or returned to their families.

Dr. Leila Gupta, a project officer with UNICEF's psycho-social trauma team, has found the same thing. She says that in most cases, it is simply not possible to reunite the children of Rwanda's genocide with their relatives. This means that social workers, teachers, and humanitarian organizations often become their surrogate parents. She says that while most of the girls she sees are more likely to cry over the trauma they've experienced, many of the boys are at risk of becoming violent themselves, raising important concerns for Rwanda's future.

That many of the girls who come through shelters and missions in Kigali work as prostitutes and risk contracting HIV is of equal concern to aid workers. "It's difficult… they are unstable," says one of Dion's aides, who identified herself only as Madame Eugenie. "The girls I see spend most of their days in the mission. In the evening, many go to the nightclubs and work as prostitutes for the money they need to survive. We try to educate them about AIDS, but when they leave every night, we're helpless." This also raises important concerns for Rwanda's future: UNICEF estimates that every year, 40,000 babies are born to HIV-infected mothers in Rwanda.

The Rwandan government has taken what it calls "emergency measures" to deal with the mushrooming problem of the mayibobos. But the mayibobos are just one of the problems Rwanda's government must face, and, with a gross domestic product of just US$6.4 billion, resources are scarce. So far, the government's response has, in effect, been limited to detaining mayibobos briefly, then returning them to the street. Many non-governmental organizations have established programmes in Kigali and other towns to assist street children, but without funding, aid workers say their hands are tied.

Tragically, Claire Muhinyuza's case could well be called typical. In 1994, she watched as Hutu extremists murdered her two children. She was gang-raped and left for dead after her left arm was hacked off by a machete. After the genocide, she adopted an orphaned boy, Emmanuel. Then she discovered she was HIV positive. Claire doesn't know what will happen to Emmanuel should anything happen to her.

"Thinking of the future weakens us so much," she says.

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