When Jean Damascene Hategekimana decided to become a drug dealer, he thought he was going to be rich.
Indeed, he says, he made a lot of money from selling banned liquors that he smuggled from neighbouring countries through porous borders.
The 25-year-old dealt mainly in Kanyanga, a banned liquor he smuggled from Uganda into the country through the eastern district of Nyagatare.
Hategekimana had a network of trusted clients who included consumers and retailers.
“I made a lot of money but spent it lavishly,” he says.
A few months before engaging in the illegal business, Hategekimana had started abusing drugs and had come into contact with people who initiated him into the Kanyanga business.
He travelled from Kigali, where he lived what he calls a street life to Nyagatare District where he established his base.
Little did he know that authorities were monitoring him and his days in the ‘business’ were numbered.
“I sold Kanyanga for about five months before I was arrested,” he says.
The road to Iwawa
Following his arrest in 2011, Hategekimana and other young drug addicts and delinquents who had been arrested from across the country were transported to the Iwawa Youth Rehabilitation and Skills Development Centre on the remote Iwawa Island in the middle of Lake Kivu.
The centre, in the western district of Rutsiro, trains youth aged between 18 and 35 who have been found to be involved in delinquent behaviour.
Once at the centre, the trainees undergo a rehabilitation and vocational training programme in various hands-on skills, including carpentry, tailoring, commercial farming, hairdressing and construction.
Rehabilitation is the first component that the delinquent youth are introduced to upon joining the centre.
“When I was caught and told that I was to be transferred to Iwawa, I thought it was the end of the road for me,” Hategekimana recalls.
But upon reaching the Island, he realised he was wrong.
“A few days after my arrival, I started thinking about my life and realised I was headed for the worst,” he reveals, adding that it was a moment of self-evaluation.
Hategekimana spent two years at Iwawa, undergoing a literacy skills course and then a tailoring programme.
“By the time I graduated, I had completely changed. I was a new man with a new vision,” he says.
Hategekimana is one of the hundreds of youths sent to Iwawa for rehabilitation and skills development, mainly after they engaged in drug abuse and other anti-social behaviours.
These youths, who reformed and graduated with practical skills, have since returned to the community, where they are working to transform their lives and contribute toward protecting other young individuals from engaging in drug abuse and other anti-social behaviours.
Jonathan Hakizimana, 22, graduated in masonry last year after a year of training at Iwawa. He had been taken there after he engaged in drug abuse in Huye District where he lived as a street child.
“Life today is much better than it was before,” Hakizimana says.
Building the future together
After graduation, Hakizimana returned to his home district of Gisagara in the south of the country with hope to start a new life.
He immediately approached members of Tuzamurane, a local cooperative of commercial bicycle operators, and requested to join them.
The cooperative offered him a new bicycle on loan. He worked and repaid it in the months that followed.
Currently, the cooperative, based in the rural Kansi Sector of Gisagara District, has over 30 members, including five Iwawa graduates.
“I came back with a resolve to work and lead a better life,” Hakizimana says.
“My life is significantly improving,” he adds, noting that he is currently building a house from money he earns from his transport business. He transports people and goods on his bicycle.
He also says he would soon graduate from cycling to a commercial motorcycle operator.
“Life is better now thanks to the skills and advice I got from Iwawa,” he says.
Egide Nyandwi, 27, is another Iwawa graduate and also member of Tuzamurane cooperative.
The father of one says the time he spent at Iwawa turned his life around.
“The skills I acquired there are guiding each step of my life,” Nyandwi says.
Nyandwi says being part of a cooperative that brings together young people is an opportunity to keep learning and improving his living conditions.
“Being a member of the cooperative has enabled me to work and earn money to look after my family,” he says.
On a good day, Nyandwi says he earns up to Rwf3,500 from ferrying passengers.
“Not everyone is able to earn such an amount on a daily basis and I know I can do so many things with this money,” he says.
Building a drug-free community
But apart from the struggle to improve their economic welfare, these youths are also leading another fight: educating the community, particularly the youth, on the dangers of drug abuse.
They say they are making efforts to promote good behaviour among fellow cooperative members, their peers and other members of the community.
Their area of focus remains the fight against drug-abuse which they call ‘enemy number one’ of the youth.
“I always tell fellow youth that drug abuse would land them into troubles,” Hategekimana says.
“I am lucky because almost everyone here knows my past and how my life was becoming a nightmare because of drug abuse. I believe my experience can inspire the youth to avoid the same path,” he adds.Follow https://twitter.com/JPBucyensenge