HUYE- The portable public phone rang as the client dialed to reach his friends. Olivier Ntirenganya was doing his best to enable communication by pressing buttons on the phone to initialise communication.
The fifteen-year-old boy spends his day on the street on the main road that crosses the National University of Rwanda’s campus towards Rwanda’s southern border with Burundi.
Movements of people there, a taxi park, and small businesses have created what seems to be a busy street in Butare town. It is a place for mainly students who cross the main road, leaving or entering the university’s campus.
Ntirenganya is one of more than 350,000 child labourers in Rwanda. No one knows exactly how many of these children work as phone-card hawkers today, but a 2002 government as¬sessment revealed that 352, 550 children under 18 were victims of child labour.
They were doing jobs like domestic work, cattle herding, stone quarrying, working in tea plantations, brick laying and hawking.
And a 2005/6 EICV survey revealed that 11 per cent of children between 11 and 15 are involved in income generating activities.
Today Ntirenganya ekes out a living by operating a handy public phone and selling phone cards, a business he embarked on a week after two years of his dropping out of school. The job requires him to wake up around five in the morning and makes sure he arrives in town early.
“I arrived here at seven and now I have Rwf 25,000. I am very happy and I will go buy other cards tomorrow,” he recently said while sell¬ing cards on the street in the evening.
“I will also bring mon¬ey to my boss and he will feel happy as well.”
The young hawker earns Frw3200 in three days. This is the amount of money that goes to his pocket after he pays his boss’s share and buys other cards for sale. He pays his lunch of Frw200 in a cheap restaurant in Butare town.
His boss, Bo¬naventure Ndayambaje, is a first year student at the National University of Rwanda studying Statistics. They come from the same village of Mpare in Tumba Sector, Huye District.
He hired him after the young boy had spent two months at home, jobless, after he had given up booing milk and selling cakes in a food shop in Butare.
“He told me that he could operate my phone and he didn’t mind about his schooling since he had finished primary studies,” Ndayambaje said. “I just gave him the job and I think he had no problem with it.”
But Ntirenganya is an orphan who only lives with his mother. He dropped out of school in 2006 without complet¬ing primary five after his poor mother could not buy him school materi¬als and get him lunch at noon.
“It was a big problem and I decided to give up school,” he said. That’s how Ntirenganya became one of many Rwandan child labourers who have to sweat hard for their living.
“I have to work all days because I need the money,” he says.
With Frw15,000 on his account so far, the young boy says he still can’t continue his primary education. His money is too little to pay his lunch when he is in school. But he feels like he wants to hit books again, just like his generation does.
“I feel very sad,” he said. “I want to go back to school but I can’t af¬ford it.”
The only way he believes he can rejoin school is when he gets “someone to cater for his lunch,” he said.
But he doesn’t hope to get any one. So, he has a plan for his future that doesn’t include going back to school: That’s working hard and save money for his own business.
“In future I want to start saving as I work so that I give up this job to start my own business,” he says.
His dream is to start a small shop of his own when he leaves selling phone cards. But as he waits to save enough for a small shop, he still has to spend more time on the street, running after clients and scratching more and more cards for them.
As many Rwan¬dan children continue living a hard life as labour¬ers, a national survey is being conducted by the national statistics board (NISR) in collaboration with other key players such as UNICEF, World Vision’s KURET project, and some trade unions in the coun¬try.
Rwanda’s Ministry of Labour (MI¬FOTRA) is also in process of formulating a national child labour policy with support from other partners like World Vi¬sion’s KURET Project.
No one can sign a work contract when they are under eighteen according to Rwan¬dan laws, while a law protecting children in Rwanda still allows them to start working when they are over fourteen. Children rights activists say that the law is not protecting children enough.
“Stating only the age limit when children start working is not enough.” said Christine Tuyisenge, Director of Haguruka, a Rwandan children rights group.
“There are many ways where children’s rights are violated when we look at how they are treated at work.”
Thus laws “need to be harmonized,” according to Tuyisenge, to avoid confusion and guarantee children rights.