Read a heart wrenching yet uplifting excerpt from Steve Johnson’s blog diary on his recent trip to Rwanda
Days 4&5: Tuesday 30th & Wednesday 31st October
Our attention on these two days switched from the hideous details of genocide to the amazing work of the Rwandan Sisterhood, with half the group attending its Ishami nursery school and the rest the nearby street kids Feeding Project, then swapping the following day. On both afternoons we spent some time knitting with the women at the Sisterhood’s knitting co-operative.Ishami Nursery School
As the minibuses pulled into the car park on the first morning, we could hear cheery singing and rhythmic clapping from the school building about 100 yards away. As there was some explaining and introducing to be done near the buses before we moved down to the school, the singing continued melodically, with not the least flagging, for about twenty minutes. There are few more cheerful sounds than seventy under 7s singing; when they are singing to welcome you as their visitors, it is especially heart-warming and mood-lifting. It got things off to a great start.
The children returned to their three classrooms once the welcomes were over, and our girls and adults divided our time between them, joining in the lessons enthusiastically. Most of the teaching seems to be done by rote-learning in a way which involves the whole class. It plays like call and response: the teacher calls a question and the class chants the answer. This might be a means of remembering and reciting the alphabet or the days of the week, or of learning simple statements in English and French to develop their language skills. Our girls’ main contribution to this development was the words and actions of “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”, which went down particularly well.
All seventy pupils were well turned out in smart uniforms on the first day and in identical PE kit the second day. This fitted well with the three footballs and three rugby balls that we had brought for the school, along with some clothing for those in most need. Among the clothes were several lovely, imaginatively designed dresses made from pillowcases: proof that anyone can do something, however slight, to give youngsters with no chance an upturn in their fortunes. Spending time with these young Rwandans cannot help but encourage you to do something to help.
When we got out the new footballs and rugby balls, forty minutes of frantic activity ensued as the children charged up and down on the uneven field after them. I know it was the first time these children had even seen a rugby ball, but I reckon, in the group I was playing catch with, I had a future tenacious flanker and a reliable safe fly half – potentially!
After that, it was back to class, and we took our leave, joining the other half of our party for a discussion in the church next to the school. This discussion confirmed that in many families there is no regular dependable income. One or both parents has to look for work every day to earn some money to support the family, so the nursery, by looking after the youngest children, allows them time to do this; 30% unemployment and little job security make this search a desperate daily task. Many of the children have only their mother and siblings at home.
Consider also parents who are struggling with the effects of genocide trauma, mental illness, HIV infection, or drug and alcohol addiction, and the essential caring for these babies by the Sisterhood truly becomes a matter of a child’s life or death. Often children are not well cared-for at home and are out on the street most of the day from a very young age; indeed, we saw them as we drove through the poorer parts of Kigali. There is a real possibility of many children having nothing to eat all day save what they can scavenge or beg.
The Rwandan government provides free primary education for all, but it limits this offer to those children who have spent sufficient time in a nursery school; but nursery places are not free and . For example, at Ishami, it costs £20 to keep one child in the school for a term, and £60 for a year, not a particularly large sum, but the poorer families cannot afford it. Many Rwandan children therefore do not go to school at any age, do not receive a proper education, and do not have the opportunity to improve their circumstances and life-chances. The Feeding Project builds its babies up so they get a chance to grow and develop normally, and so could attend nursery school, fees permitting.
Kigali is a bustling city with obvious wealth and equally visible poverty, the two cheek by jowl in places. From one of the poorer quarters where shacks stand back to back and roads are barely passable except on foot, one gets a striking view of Downtown, the area of greatest affluence, with flash new buildings on its sparkling hillside. The Sisterhood is working to bridge the huge gap between. It is a basic tenet of the Sisterhood that a strong woman is at the heart of a strong family; the Sisterhood works to engage, encourage and empower such women.The Feeding Project
The aim of the project is to act as a nursery for babies and toddlers in order to avert life-threatening malnutrition. The project ensures that they get something substantial to eat every day, are properly looked-after and have clean clothes to wear. All this is admirable work but the women who run the nursery, in a small rented building up the road from the school, can care for only twelve such children and there are many more in the area who get only what their parents can provide, which might on some days be nothing at all. The hope is to move the project to bigger premises next to the school, if the money can be raised for the new building.
The age range at the project is from 12 to 18 months, though the Sisterhood hopes that the children will be able to move eventually from the feeding project into the school at three or four years old. They are at an early stage of this plan, but the women organising and running the project, headed by the estimable Sophie, have such drive that you would bet on their eventual success.
The arrival of a dozen strangers caused a degree of anxiety among the tiny children so we had to sit quietly outside the main room and enter calmly and quietly one by one. In this way the children didn’t notice the gradually increasing number of potentially alarming big people. The girls were soon sitting on the carpet and playing with the children, feeding them and generally entertaining them. In fact, this entertainment worked both ways as the girls were as much enthralled by their temporary charges as the temporary charges were by them. Peace and fun reigned for a couple of hours.
I found this visit uncomfortable initially. The underlying message of the place seems to me to be that here is a group of women dealing with problems caused by men. I certainly do not mean Rwandan men in particular: men are biologically the same the whole world over, and it is biology that produces the children. I was pleased to hear from Souvenir and Sophie that they are attempting to teach men and women about birth control and family planning; some of the responses to this from men, however, sounded unencouraging. This too is the same the whole world over: it’s the women who carry, and have to care for, the results of men prioritising of their own desires over anyone else’s interests or the general good. Same as it ever was.
Accordingly, therefore I felt ashamed to see these innocents slurping milk and eating porridge, the only meal they’d get today. I retreated from the inner room to the outer area. Here there was a toddler with a ball which he handed to me and was delighted to follow and bring back if I rolled it away a few feet. No sounds were exchanged but we were communicating by playing with the ball.
After a while, this drew the attention of another toddler, and when the first wandered off to play with a toy truck, the ball became the focus for another game, this time with a little lad called Jemsi. This game involved Jemsi holding the ball above his head as if to take a throw-in; at this point I tickled his tummy and he produced one of the most lovely sounds there is – a toddler laughing. He laughed a lot as we played variations of this game, until he came to stand where I sat, resting his arms on my thighs as he got his breath back. An unexpected pleasure and a real delight to have met him.
During this time, we unpacked and handed over the two huge bags filled with clothes for the children to wear. The gratitude of the women was almost embarrassing, considering how little effort collecting this stuff had been, compared to the constant demanding work they are doing to save and change young children’s lives.The afternoons
After lunch on Tuesday, we went to the second base of the Sisterhood in a different area of the city. Here in the garage and front yard of Sarah, one of Souvenir’s sisters, knitting is the prime activity. Our team had come equipped to knit and to teach the women how it’s done. The aim is to give them a skill with which they could earn some money. A wonderful couple of hours followed each day. The women have collectively created some wonderful knitted garments, and have expanded to form a co-operative which includes jewellery making and other fabric and art work. A bit of present shopping was done. A bit of promising potential commercial expansion was discussed too.
One of the star knitters and crochet experts is Irakoze, who is 20 years old and has a 5-year-old daughter called Deborah. Irakoze is one of the graduates whose success we were going to celebrate at the ceremony next day. She hopes that the skills she has learnt will help her look after herself and her daughter. Deborah has learned how to crochet too. Sarah, Souvenir’s siter and in charge of the knitting group, told us about Irakoze, adding that she needed college fees to complete her training. Within ten minutes, members of our party had donated enough money for the next academic year and beyond, including a spontaneous collection of money by the girls entirely on their own initiative.
We had brought lots of knitting needles and wool to donate to the new knitters, and on the Wednesday afternoon the girls presented every woman there with one of our knitted blankets. Despite the heat, most of the women at once draped the blankets over their shoulders. Again, a small effort had created a strong link founded on giving and receiving, and again the genuine flood of thanks which was poured out created an emotional memory for all present. Sarah told us that this was probably the first time in her life that a mother had been given anything that was new and hers to keep.
We briefly visited a day clinic for ante-natal care which was in a building that the group on the Rwanda trip two years ago had helped prepare for its opening by giving the newly finished interior a thorough clean. Here pregnant women now are monitored throughout their pregnancy, and the birth takes place with proper medical provision in bright, hygienic conditions. This had formerly had to happen on a groundsheet in a tent in all weathers. Again, massive progress is being made, but so much is still to do. We had brought two bags of baby clothes which we sorted into piles while the girls had a tour of the building, which the Minister of Health had formally opened in June this year.
Shopping took place too, of course. On Tuesday afternoon, at a craft market where 30 or so near-identical huts were stocked to the gunnels with near-identical hoards of tourist-friendly goods, but it was, on the whole, good stuff at reasonable prices, though what these prices are had to be discussed by extended play-acted haggling.
Better was the shopping at the women’s collective we visited on Wednesday: extremely attractive stuffed toys, wonderful fabrics, bright designs on bags, tableware, basketry and clothing. This was another example of women in Rwanda organising themselves to accomplish something remarkable; this collective’s sales of the items the women design and make now brings in enough money to pay each of the 55 women a regular wage, removing one cause of family hardship.
Strong women at the centre of a strong nation: this is a remarkable country.
Read more about the trip or follow Steve Johnson's blog HERE