Rwamagana street children given new lease of life

It is a cold morning and a group of teenagers sit crammed, in a semi-circle, inside a room at a community centre in Rwamagana.
Agnes Uwimana doing hair dressing as part of her training.  (Stephen Rwembeho)
Agnes Uwimana doing hair dressing as part of her training. (Stephen Rwembeho)

It is a cold morning and a group of teenagers sit crammed, in a semi-circle, inside a room at a community centre in Rwamagana.

The former street children are watching a documentary about the life of a woman born without legs, but in spite of her state, maintains a positive attitude.

They all appear relaxed, attentive and indeed enjoying the documentary. Thereafter, Alfred Ngabonziza, a teacher guides the students into an emotional discussion that allows every learner to describe how they feel.

Ngabonziza says the kind of documentary film is intended to drive the message home for the learners.

“We prepare them to know that despite living in a state of hopelessness, there is hope for a positive life — one worth living. All they have to do is to express emotions in the right manner, accept the situation and seek help,” he says.

But is there hope for the children? Yes, according to officials of African Evangelical Enterprise (AEE-Rwanda), an organisation that provides vulnerable children with life skills for a better future. Over the past five years, AEE has been implementing programmes designed to empower children rescued from the streets with skills they need to triumph over hardships.

Using a psycho-spiritual approach, AEE reaches out to minors aged 10 and above. The programmes are conducted in conjunction with government child welfare agencies.

Initiating street children

Under the AEE programme, children who are willing to go back to school are also able to receive pre-training to help them adapt to a formal learning environment.

Indeed, when this writer visited, the former street children were busy attending practical classes in various fields of their specialisation.

They are also given shelter where they can sleep, eat and bathe. The day centre is also staffed with a few teachers, counselors and several other facilities.

Former street boys in house construction work. (Stephen Rwembeho)

Teachers/mentors at the school that exclusively houses former street children, say that even though family breakdowns may be difficult to prevent, something can be done to help the victims.

One such example is 16-year old Agnes Uwimana and Claude Azarerwanimana, 14.

To a casual observer, these two look like any other teenager of their age, but behind what appears normal on the surface hides a quite a troubled childhood.

They wandered the streets in mobs, begged for money and searched garbage heaps for leftovers from restaurants.

They are just two examples of some several street children in districts, most of whom have left their homes to escape domestic violence and poverty.

It is not uncommon to see children and teenagers, move like the vendors, dash between cars and buses when traffic slows down in towns.

They knock on bus doors or windows, hang on cargo carrying lorries and even stretch their arms to beg for money to buy food.

The circumstances these street children are facing are usually the same across the country; dirt poor.  Some are orphans with nobody to turn to while others escape harsh treatment at home for an even harsher life on the streets.

On the streets they lack access to healthcare, education and social support, and are also vulnerable to abuse, disease and exploitation by criminal gangs.

This may have lifelong negative impacts on their physical and mental health; limiting their opportunities before they even begin to realize their full potential.

AEE Community Center is helping such children to break the cycle by providing not just a roof over their heads, but even more importantly, education, training and counseling facilities.

Beneficiaries speak

Agnes Uwimana recounts her story with a fierce and admirable courage: “My background was chaotic. I was orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. I was often abused on the streets, regarded as barely human and on the very fringe of society. I struggled hard to live above the ground, begging or scavenging through rubbish for food,” she narrated.

“I moved from Kayonza to Kibungo and later on Rwamagana town before good Samaritans rescued me. Now, I can realise my full potential and discover my inherent worth”.

She is learning hairdressing and is full of hope.

“We are born again, equipped with the skills and confidence needed to reintegrate into society,” she added.

Azarerwanimana also recounted how street children live in constant danger, urging well wishers to work hard to get them off the streets.

He laments that exploitation and violence, abuse and malnutrition, zero care and no education, was what characterizes them.

“It is a sad reality that street children are defenseless. We were discriminated against and branded as criminals.

I have no doubt most children who live on the streets have already experienced violence and negligence. Some children are sexually abused by adults who take advantage of their state, it is horrible,” he says.

New hope

In cases where reintegration into formal education systems is not feasible, vocational training combined with literacy, numeracy and life skills is offered.

The former street children intend to improve their living standards by acquiring employable skills through vocational training.

”We want to become job creator, not to be employed by others. I now have confidence of living life without depending on well wishers. I have seen many women make money from hair dressing. Since I have the skills, I must emulate them. I am slowly burying my ugly past,” says Uwimana.