A lot has been said about Iwawa Island, some have referred to it as an island of no return, isle for the unwanted or even ‘Rwanda’s Alcatraz’.
Speculation has been rife about the purpose of this new centre for rehabilitation and skills development.
The New York Times in particular referred to the island as a little known outpost where the current regime’s unwanted—dissenters and opposition are disposed off to maintain the neatly swept Kigali streets.
“It is one of the country’s newest self-improvement projects, and it seems a fitting symbol for what many political analysts and human rights groups say Rwanda has become: orderly but repressive.” The New York Times states.
Little indeed is known about Iwawa Rehabilitation and Development Skills Centre, perhaps because it is a new establishment, having opened its doors on February 6th, 2010, but to all that has been said, there is a side of the story on Iwawa that hasn’t been told.
As we headed west to Rubavu-Gisenyi town where we were to spend a night before heading to Iwawa Island the next morning, what preoccupied my mind was the need to find out the truth, curiosity took me over and I couldn’t wait for morning to come.
The sun was rising brightly over the imposing hills across the lake as we waited by the pier at Kivu Serena Hotel for the RDF Marine boat to come and take us to the island. The Minister of Youth Protais Mitali, whose docket the centre falls under, waited with us.
As the engine of the fast boat roared towards the shore, I finally knew that the Iwawa puzzle would be solved, come what may. What didn’t matter at this moment was the volatility and unpredictability of the Lake Kivu waters.
After 55 minutes riding on the uncomfortable waters, the island emerged. Quite scenic I must say.
The white rocks holding the soil that makes up the island together reflect the sun as the waves rhythmically ram into them. Lush green trees cover the island, which from a distance you would think is virgin and uninhabited.
Small police motor boats ferried us from the much bigger Marine boat to the landing pier. On board were mainly journalists and a few government officials as well as security officials of the Western Province.
After gathering at the landing site, the group led by the Youth Minister himself headed straight to the centre and the event was the launch of Vocational training skills that would benefit the over 1,100 youth undergoing rehabilitation at the centre.
The clean footpaths snaking through the thick green vegetation cover suggested that after all, there is life at the island. Soon we emerged out of the forest cover into a ompound with huge iron roof structures.
The aroma that filled the air suggested that someone was cooking. Outside the iron roof construction were improvised stands littered with clean plastic utensils and basins of clean water.
A guided tour was conducted by the Minister around the kitchen where a group of ten or so boys were watching over huge saucepans steaming with rice and a mixture of beans and maize grains (Invungure).
Clad in white T-shirts, black shorts and uniform converse shoes, the energetic and youthful group freely interact with us on life at the centre. Some of course are still visibly resistant to the programmes at the centre, given the street life most of them had lived through, but not all.
“I believe life will change after here, there is a clear vision of what we are doing here,” says Jean Claude Gikundiro, a 22-year-old former scrap dealer arrested for loitering by patrol police on the 6th of February.
He goes on to say that he was earning little out of selling metal scrap and he squandered the proceeds in drinking. He is orphaned but he strongly believes that once he completes the rehabilitation and the skills training, life will change for the better.
“I wasn’t doing anything apart from moving around looking for odd jobs but today I am doing something that will help me become self-employed,” adds another 22-year-old Innocent Habarurema, from Kacyiru.
However, not all reason like Habarurema or Gikundiro, as it is the case with 32-year-old Jean Claude Hakizimana.
“I am a family man. I have two kids and a wife who today might not be aware of where I am.
I am a professional mechanic and I had a job as a mechanic in Nyamirambo until I was rounded up in an operation and brought here,” Hakizimana said.
However, before I could come to a conclusion, Mitali chips in and warns ‘don’t take everything that some of these people will tell you as gospel truth”.
The reason for the Ministers warning is because some of the youth who were hardcore street gangsters and drug addicts have taken long to adapt to the centre.
“We had to go back and gather information about each one of them; we have their profiles. We actually found out that the initial information they gave us was in most cases wrong,”
“They did not have identification, so some would even lie to us that they are university students but we found out that some had never stepped in a classroom. Some lie to get themselves off the hook,” Mitali explained.
After asking a few boys about Gakunzi Gasigwa, the 14-year-old boy who featured in The New York Times—one of the most prominent newspaper in the world—I discovered that a number of isolated theories surround the boy who caught the sympathy of the whole world.
While many believe that there was a boy named Gasigwa at the centre, who alongside other young boys believed to be under 18, was shipped back to Kigali, no one could confirm whether his second name was Gakunzi.
However, a number of the boys confirmed that Gasigwa was there but he lied about his family and why he was arrested. Available information indicates that he is an orphan and lived in an orphanage in Kanombe, Kicukiro District.
For a number of times, he run away from the orphanage, abandoned school and run to the streets and spent most of his time watching movies in makeshift video halls. However lady luck run out and he was rounded up alongside other delinquent youth and shipped to the centre.
Opposite the kitchen is a new workshop where over 20 boys, clad in navy blue overalls and wearing protection masks are undertaking carpentry lessons.
The sound of the new carpentry tools against the wood is indicative that the skills development programme that was officially launched that day had already commenced.
An instructor from Workforce Development Authority (WDA) was giving instructions to a section of boys at the corner of the workshop.
“I have been here for three months and what I have learnt here will give me another lease of life. I was a tonne boy earning little money but if I leave here with a certificate, I am sure that I will be self employed,” says Alphonse Nsengimana, 20, who was rounded up in Nyabugogo.
Inside the dormitories, mattresses lay side by side, each covered by a mosquito net on four poles making a sort of cubicle for each mattress. Clean pails hang on the side, alongside a spare pair of shoes.
“This centre has just started as you may know. We are still putting up enough facilities but so far I think the accommodation facilities are ok,” Mitali says adding that “the facilities in place are better than the gutters, verandas or garbage collection points where most of them used to sleep.”
A few metres from the dormitories, is a play ground where majority of the boys are gathered singing patriotic songs. The mood is electric, the thumping on the ground intensifies as the Minister and his entourage approach.
On the side, a group of boys, under the watchful eye of Singapore-trained WDA trainer, are exhibiting brick laying skills using a Hydraform machine. The machine effortlessly produces 800 bricks daily.
The Minister and the Mayor of Rutsiro District join in and make a couple of bricks before proceeding to join the dancing group.
The over 700 youthful voices resounded and took over the island for a moment—there is no doubt that the boys have reformed, or are at least ready to.
“HIV/AIDS affects the youth most especially and remember you are the future of the country. Everyone can catch the virus and everyone is capable of transmitting it; the trick therefore is prevention,” Jacque Gakungu from CNLS (National Centre for Aids Control) told the attentive youth.
Apart from being rehabilitated and being equipped with development skills like carpentry, masonry, woodwork, plumbing, tailoring, welding and entrepreneurship skills, the youth at the centre are also instilled with the values of becoming responsible citizens and are also taught several languages.
WDA will award certificates to those who successfully complete the course, which ranges between six month and 2 years depending on ones response to the rehabilitation programme.
It will also, together with the Private Sector Federation (PSF), source them to potential employers in the private and public sector or help them to set up their own projects.
According to Jean Marie Vianney Munyaneza, the coordinator of the centre, there is no one below the age of 18. He also said that those who were previously unhappy in the first place have today changed and have a clear vision of the centres’ programmes.
“The hardest phase is rehabilitating them. The training part will be a lot easier because they now know why they are here. They know that the skills they get here, others pay a fortune elsewhere to acquire them,”
“Tell me a University where people go feed, cloth and at the end of the day walk away with a certificate, all for free?” Munyaneza pondered.
Pacifique Kwizera, 19, born in Muhoza Sector, Musanze District gave a testimony of how he heard about the centre from a friend who had watched it on TV, tired of street life, he chose to find his way to the island and he did.
After days of travelling, he made it there, explained his problem and he was duly accepted. Today he is one of the many at the centre who see a positive future after a stint at the centre.
“There are government institutions to equip youth with skills all over the country but this programme in particular targets the youth who are on the streets, fighting running battles with the police,”
“Some have been idlers, drug dealers or addicts, pickpockets and petty thieves but the vision we have is to make them productive youth; this is a countrywide programme, that does not only target Kigali,” Mitali says.
According to Mitali, the centre which was setup up after a Presidential decree will be developed to become a model rehabilitation and skills development centre while at a certain point accommodation and hospitality facilities for tourists will be developed at the beautiful island.
There is also an arrangement to allow their families to visit them and they will also be allowed visits to their families at a later stage. Plans are also in place for them to participate in the upcoming Presidential elections.
The youth presented acrobatic and boxing skills for their audience. A while later, Mitali promised the youth a DSTV system and a big screen to facilitate them to enjoy the 2010 World Cup. Ululations filled the air when the announcement was made.