It is said that in life, everything happens for a reason; and things will always fall in place as they should. This seems to sum up Philippe Ngabonziza’s life so far.
Just about 15 years ago, Ngabonziza, a co founder of Building Hope for Africa (BHA), a local charity that works for disadvantaged children, would have never dreamt of being anywhere close to where he is today.
As recent as 1997, Ngabonziza was hustling life on the streets of Kigali; look for what to eat and also spare something for his younger sister—with whom together the cruel hand of death had denied them a chance to have a normal childhood upbringing.
Born in May 1984, Ngabonziza had been blessed with a caring father and mother and enjoyed the first few years of his formative life as a child, but all this proved to be short-lived when, in 1994, his father was killed during the Genocide against the Tutsi.
While he struggled to come to terms with the death of his father and the devastation that come with the aftermath of the Genocide, the hand of death struck again a year later—this time claiming his mother.
During that time, the country was in shambles with survivors of the Genocide living on the edge having lost everything, but their lives. Even then, some were sick and wounded. Not many survivors knew whether a relative or two had survived the killer’s sword to be able to offer some form of assistance. And even if they had survived, nobody was in position to help as everybody—child or adult—was in dire need of help after enduring 100 days of mass killings that claimed more than a million lives until the Rwanda Patriotic Front liberated the country.
Since every survivor was poor, and no one was able to take on the likes of Ngabonziza into their care, the 12-year-old started his life on the streets of Kigali.
“We used to live in Kanombe; I would always go to a place called Cumi na Gatanu and would push bicycles carrying jerrycans of local brew, commonly known as Umuramba up to Remera where we would be paid Rwf50 or Rwf 100 on a good day. During that time, it was a lot of money because I would be able to buy myself something to eat and take some home for my sister,” he recalls.
Yet the problem at hand was bigger than just affording something basic to eat. Then, the children lived in a house previously rented by their deceased parents. Since Ngabonziza was still a minor and without a stable job, he couldn’t afford to pay rent. Soon, the two orphans were evicted from the house after accumulating months of rent arrears.
The only option was to join their equally needy older sister in Nyamirambo, but life was not any better to the extent that the young lad found life in the streets more fulfilling.
“I was on and off the streets, my older sister had her own family and life there was not any better, so I would stay on the streets for two to three days and whenever it would rain I would go back to her place to escape the cold,” he said in an interview.
That was the kind of life Ngabonziza lived for about two years. This situation started to change for the better upon his brother’s return from Bujumbura, where he had gone to study.
“My brother got a job in Gitarama after he returned from Burundi upon completing his studies. So he took us on with my younger sister and life returned to normal once again. My brother had good income and was even able to take us back to school, in addition to providing us with all the basic needs a child would need,” he said.
Ngabonziza resumed school in primary five at Gishari Primary School. He later joined College Adventiste School of Gishwati for his secondary education.
While in high school, because of past life as a street boy and the tragedy of losing his mother to HIV/AIDS, Ngabonziza was voted president of the school’s AIDS club. He was also active in drama and had talent in organising events—attributes that made him the obvious choice for a leader of the club that sought to spread the anti-HIV/AIDS message among fellow students.
This turned out to be a life-changing development, for him and has never looked back since then.
“In 2003, I was selected by an international non-government organisation called Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) that was identifying children with different talents from various schools, to participate in an AIDS awareness workshop. Those chosen were trained on how to use our talents to sensitise other children about the deadly disease.”
It is during this workshop that Ngabonziza was identified by one of the volunteers, an American man called Jessy Hawks, who picked interest in his talent.
Hawks was like his guardian angel sent from Heaven. He offered to pay Ngabonziza’s school fees until he completed high school. This offer was timely because it came at the time when the brother, who was sponsoring him, was experiencing financial challenges and Ngabonziza was on the verge of dropping out of school again.
During his senior six vacation, he was hired by Rwandans Allied for Peace and Progress, a non-government organisation founded by his sponsor Hawks. The remuneration, he says, was enough to pay for his tuition.
Yet even with a well-paying job, he did not falter on his quest for education. He enrolled for a course in accounting at Kigali Independent University. He however abandoned the course in 2012 before completing and travelled to the USA.
“I was working while studying and that’s the time I met my American wife, Christine, whom we were working together. So we had gone to America to visit her family but opted to stay there after getting better jobs and earning much more money than we were earning in Rwanda.”
But as it is said: Never should a man forget his roots. Ngabonziza agrees to that notion because while in the USA with a well paying job, he never forgot his home country or his past experience.
And while in there, he formed a non-government organisation called Building Hope for Africa that specifically seeks to restore joy and smiles on the faces of street children.
“Before we moved to the United States with my girlfriend at the time, there used to be street kids who would come to our house begging for food and we would always give it to them. But when we left, we were worried about them and wondered how they were coping now that we were not around. That is how we came up with the idea of starting an organisation that can help such children,” he said.
He says his organisation targets vulnerable children between the age of 7- 17 with major focus on developing their talents so as to enable them become professionals in various fields.
“We have started in Musanze and are working with another organisation called Grain De Seneve Association that has identified for us over 25 children to work with. We have just concluded a week-long training where we equipped these children with theatre skills; how theatre works and how they can tell their life stories through art and drama.”
He adds that they will also be hosting community events where the children will have an opportunity to perform their plays from the theatre workshops giving them opportunity to bring community awareness to their struggles and advocate for their own interests.
BHA’s target is to see that kids that have had a disturbed childhood can have a normal life. At the moment the organisation is sponsoring a few children in school – providing everything including school requirements.