At the start of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Marie Theogene Muteteli was a newlywed basking in marital bliss.
However, this joy was short-lived. Her husband was killed in the first days leaving her a young widow.
Muteteli, who was 32 years old at the time, joined SOS Children’s Villages in June 1994.
SOS Children’s Villages has been a home to many vulnerable children in Rwanda since 1978, but its effort doubled after the Genocide, which left many children orphaned.
Established globally in 1949, SOS Children’s Villages International is a non-government organisation working globally to meet the needs and protect the interests and rights of children. Locally, it helps families stay together so that Rwandan children and young adults can grow up in a safe, family environment.
Even with her own troubles, Muteteli sought ways to help others, and started working with children who were wounded physically and emotionally, children who needed someone to show them that their lives mattered.
“When I saw the children crying, I put my sadness aside and decided to use all the humanity I had left to help them, so that they could live as normally as possible. It was like a way to thank God for his protection during the Genocide,” she says.
Muteteli remembers that at the beginning, she started with children with health problems because of the bad conditions they endured during the Genocide.
“I remember one child; she was an underweight baby. Her mother had abandoned her at King Faisal Hospital. Even with the passion to help those children, it was hard for me to take care of her. But I got to love her like my own and now, she is in college,” she says.
Food was an issue, she recalls.
“SOS imported the food we used to eat from Nairobi,” she recalls.
Since starting out in 1994, she has been a ‘mother’ to 32 children; many of them are in universities in the country and outside of Rwanda, and one of them even got married.
“I was young but I didn’t think to remarry. There were some men who made passes at me and wanted me as a wife, but I didn’t feel interested as my priority was helping children in need,” she says.
Muteteli says that not having children of her own wasn’t an issue, rather, a plan.
“When children call me ‘mother’, and say things like ‘mother I was wrong but I ask for forgiveness’ or ‘mother please don’t report it to father’ (the director), it’s very heartening. When they are sick and I take them to the hospital during the night, what more do I need to prove that I am a mother? When a child of mine tells me that she got engaged, I help her prepare for the wedding and I invite the neighbours, the joy I feel is real, just like any other parent,” she says.
At the beginning it was hard as Muteteli and her fellow ‘mothers’ at SOS Children’s Villages would receive children who lost their parents and other family members during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, and those whose parents participated in the killings, she says.
“We had to show them that they were all innocent children, and that they were like siblings but it was not easy,” she recalls.
They had to do all their activities together, like eating at the same table, praying together and helping each other during tasks, among other things, she says.
“At the time, they used to share even beds. Slowly, they became like real siblings and things became easier,” she recalls.
Agnes Mutalindwa has been a ‘mother’ of 10 children during the seven years she has been at SOS Children’s Village. Five of them eventually joined their families that they’d been separated from.
Mutalindwa says that children come with different appeals, from everywhere, with various problems.
Some had parents but their behaviour suggested otherwise. Some have the worst behaviour, and it requires a lot of love and care to raise them,” she says.
“We make sure we spend a lot of time with them; we go every wherewith them, for mass or to the market,” she adds.
They need to be cared for more than anything, Mutalindwa says, as inadequate care is what makes most of them run away from home.
“For example, I received a child who was not able to sit because of a condition she suffered. I received another who couldn’t speak, yet he was seven years old, because of the trauma. Most of them have various problems. It requires us to love them and help them wholeheartedly,” she says.
She says that most of the ‘mothers’ were teachers and have at least basic knowledge in psychology.
“We live at the centre. We have at least one day off a week, and annual leave. For me, my kids are in boarding school, and when they come back for holidays, I make sure I use my leave to be with them,” she says.
“I don’t know how it works but when you’re called ‘mother’, the love is natural. When I go to church or wherever I’m required to introduce myself, I feel proud to say that I’m a mother of 12. My own are only two,” Mutalindwa says.
Mutalindwa also says that even if they receive training at the beginning, the love and passion for children comes naturally.
“When I take my leave, some of them ask to go with me, and so my own children feel like these are their siblings,” Mutalindwa adds.
Mathilde Nyirahabineza was raised in the SOS orphanage from 1980 to 1996, and then she moved in with an aunt from 1996 to 2003. She has been a ‘mother’ since 2003.
She lost her parents at a tender age and was taken in by her uncle. However, no one cared about her, and she was not in school.
“He put his own children in school but I remained home doing house chores. All the property from my parents was mishandled and I didn’t receive anything from it. One day, I met some SOS people who brought me to the centre. I was 12 years old,” she recalls.
The families are small units, made up of a mother, children and aunties, she says.
“We lived a normal life. It was not an orphanage, it was a family, a home,” Nyirahabineza says.
“We used to wake up in the morning and have breakfast, and like any other family, every child had some age-appropriate work to do before going to school.
“When we got back from school, we joined our mothers to help with some of the work,” she recalls.
Food is prepared at the family level, the mother is in charge of everyday shopping, or she can send her children to the market and teach them house chores like cooking and ironing she says.
Once they are done with their studies, children are free to live on their own, however, they continue to be attached to their ‘mothers’,”Nyirahabineza says.
“They are our mothers. We talk to them on a regular basis to know how they are. If someone gets engaged, they bring the partner home to meet the mother,” she says.
At the wedding, the mother is honoured as the one who raised the child.
Thanks to my mother at SOS, I’ve grown into someone who can help others. Now I have a child that I raise at my own home who came from another closed orphanage,” Nyirahabineza says.
She raised 12 children from 2003 and now remains with six.