Erica Gateka Matasi has a soft spot for adolescent girls and kids in general, and her dream is to see them prosper. She believes that shaping the future generation right from the grass root level will give kids an accurate sense of direction in life. With this, she started ‘The Eli Children’s Project’ and ‘IAmHer’, both of which are focused on empowering children with skills that will enhance their future. The 24-year-old had a chat with Donah Mbabazi.
Tell us about your projects
I am currently working on two projects, ‘The Eli Children’s Project’ and ‘IAmHer’. ‘The Elie Children’s Project’ is basically about giving underprivileged children a hand through education. This is done mostly through providing basic English skills, especially reading. Through this initiative, we hope that children can develop not just their intellectual abilities, but their talents and skills like sport, theatre and art. We also teach children Christian principals because we believe that any true and long lasting transformation needs to be grounded on a proper foundation, which is Jesus Christ.
Today we have set up our very first community children’s centre, “Eli’s Corner”, which was named after a child (Eli) who died early on in the beginning of the project and we were inspired to name it after him. At the centre, children from the ages of 5 to14 come and attend weekly classes from Thursday to Saturday but have access to the mini community library at other times during the week. The books in the library were donated to us by ‘Imagine We Rwanda’. I believe what makes this project unique is that it is a project totally run and supported by young people and we believe that it doesn’t take too much to change the world, what we have is enough for someone who has nothing.
Secondly, we run a community girls’ circle for young girls in secondary schools. Truth be told, girls in low income communities are more prone to teen pregnancy and dropping out than those of high income communities because of different factors like poverty levels and lack of exposure. This initiative aims at ensuring that girls in our community go all the way to the end, by that I mean finish school, not just successfully, but with bigger dreams beyond marriage. We inspire the girls to start small income generating activities that will give them more self worth other than seeking ‘little money’ from men that do nothing but impregnant and dump them.
Why a keen eye for kids and young girls?
We give a keen eye to children, especially underprivileged ones, because we believe a well trained child makes a better adolescent and eventually a better adult. We know that underprivileged children normally don’t go to the best schools and their parents are often too illiterate to help them and some don’t go to school at all. Someone needs to stand up and make an opportunity for kids who will never get the opportunity. As for the girls, if we need a more responsible society of girls who finish school and aim higher, we need to provide alternatives for girls with no choices.
Isn’t it challenging reaching out to all those children?
Currently the project reaches out to more than 70 children of a variety of age groups and education levels. That in itself is a great challenge because we want to provide the best level of attention and support to each kid. Some kids do not go to school or have never been to school before and this means we need to give them extra attention, we start from scratch with them. One other challenge is that all of us on the team are young passionate people but none of us has a degree in teaching or child education so we face challenges every day but it’s no excuse to sit down and do nothing about it, it just means extra research and commitment. Through YouTube, Google, books and advice from around, we do our best to provide the best.
Do you think your work has made an impact yet?
To me the greatest impact is in the small things, it is when a kid who could not write or hold a pen writes the entire alphabet, it’s when a child can recognise and tell you body parts in English, it’s when a kid who used to be the last in class suddenly becomes the first.
All these small things add up to make great and lasting impact. Children in our village in Kinyinya love and value education and their parents never seize to appreciate this initiative in the community. Young people are inspired to volunteer and make a difference. This I believe is an impact.
What can be done to make the world a better place for children?
The world would be a better a place if opportunities were created for children in the smallest yet most genuine ways, like creating time for them, space for them to grow and develop, households that are peaceful and free from domestic violence, a home for an orphan or homeless child, the list is endless.
What other phases do you think underprivileged children need?
Children in underprivileged communities grow up amidst many challenges like poverty, rejection, domestic violence and even sexual violence (child molestation). This happens in secret and children rarely get psychological help to deal with some of these huge issues that affect them. I believe that one thing we need to add on top of sending them back to school is providing child counseling facilities for children from underprivileged backgrounds.
Any chance that this kid’s project will turn into something bigger?
In the next few years, we hope to open several affordable children community centres with libraries in poor communities both in Kigali and rural areas. Next year, we hope to put some of the children we work with who have never been to school or who had dropped out back into school. We are working on ensuring that they reach a certain level of literacy for them to safely go into schools. We also hope to train and recruit young passionate volunteers to pioneer similar small projects in their own communities.
Some young girls struggle to come to terms with who they are. What do you think can be done to help them?
Teenage years are often the hardest years for a girl. They are faced with the challenge of self esteem and can easily be blown by the winds of peer pressure. Therefore I believe the first thing we need to do is to help them find themselves through discovering their unique purpose in life. After that, we can help them make simple life goals and encourage them to take small steps towards them.
Inspiring them with stories of other successful girls and providing a useful skill for them always serves as motivation. However, I believe that this entire process begins with a listening approach, sitting down with girls and honestly listening to what they face and struggle with in this time and era, and designing a solution which is tailored towards meeting their unique needs rather than assuming that one solution works for all.
Do you think sex education has been emphasised enough?
I commend the Ministry of Education and its partners for the work they are doing to teach sex education in schools. I believe more needs to be done, especially when it comes to creating an atmosphere for young people to share freely during sex education classes about their experiences. If possible, and if resources allow, they need to source outside and get experienced people to come and speak to the pupils and if possible, provide one-on-one talks with them. In a recent research we did in some secondary schools in Rwanda, pupils expressed the fear of sharing with their teachers their experiences.
What are the challenges that young girls face in society that need to be addressed?
I believe more work is put towards ensuring that girls don’t get pregnant but another challenge lies on the girls who have been pregnant or have babies. Often times our communities shun them and look down on them rather than help them know that it’s not the end of the world. Due to the discrimination they receive from the communities and families these girls tend to get pregnant again and again. Therefore we need to create a system to support girls who have already been pregnant to help them regain confidence and a higher purpose in life.