Wednesday, May 18, marked a milestone when Iwawa’s Rehabilitation and Vocational Development Centre rolled out its first graduates since its establishment in February last year.
A powerful government delegation led by Prime Minister, Bernard Makuza, the diplomatic corps led by the European Union Representative Michel Arrion and French Ambassador to Rwanda, Laurent Contini, as well as parents and guardians played witness as 752 former street children were awarded certificates.
The colourful and memorable event at the outpost located on L. Kivu, in Rutsiro District, was characterised by song and dance. The mood was, for obvious reasons, joyful on the side of the parents and guardians whose once destitute children were getting a new lease of life.
It was welcome as well on the side of government whose decision to establish the centre was met with much criticism. The western media referred to the island as the ‘Alcatraz of Rwanda’ or the ‘Island of no return” where the government detained people it deemed unfit to live on the ‘clean streets’ of Kigali.
253 completing courses in Construction, 157 in Bee Keeping, 156 in Commercial Farming, 108 in Carpentry and 101 in Tailoring, on top of language skills in English and Kiswahili as well as Mathematics.
During their over one year stay at the island, they were also counselled. They received psychological support needed to renounce their former street lifestyles in exchange for discipline, society values, lessons in patriotism and religious values.
For Emmanuel Musabyimana, life will never be the same again. On behalf of the rest of the students, he expressed a strong belief that the newly acquired skills in tailoring, would allow him to live a responsible life free of alcohol and drugs.
Forever indebted to the centre, Musabyimana, just like his departing colleagues vowed not to waste the life skills, acquired at Iwawa. Their resolve is to live productive lives, something they never dreamt about.
“The most important thing we can say as youth who lived here, is that we have changed in all aspects---from the way we talk, appearance, to our approach to life,” said Musabyimana.
One of the most important changes is discipline. The centre transformed them from the street hoodlums to “humane” people. To that he says, he can’t thank the government enough.
“We no longer had a human heart because of the lifestyle we had embraced. On my part, I used to drink alcohol and abuse all kinds of drugs to the extent that I looked like a man older than my real age,” Musabyimana recalled.
“I spent all my past life running away from the government,” he continued. “In my new life, I will instead be coming closer to the government in whatever I do.”
A strong Christian with powerful preaching and praying skills, Musabyimana believes that with a small start up capital, he will go back home to start a workshop. From there, he is determined, to work for a better future.
The seemingly strong and healthy lad, who speaks with a humorous twist, took a swipe at critics who referred to the centre as a “detention camp”. Jokingly, he posed to the crowd; where in the world do detainees appear as healthy or as skilled as he does?.
He then informed the gathering that the elegant uniforms the students were donning were made by the students themselves. Similarly, the graduation caps and colourful sashes the graduates wore, were made at Iwawa.
“What we wear today, the chairs you sit on were not bought. We made them ourselves,” he said.
“So, I hold in contempt those who call our centre a prison. We thank the government for this initiative. Those who say that this is a prison should first ask our parents who notice the progress we have made,” he remarked.
Not only do the graduates realise the importance of the rehabilitation and vocational training centre. Those continuing with their training expressed optimism.
Speaking on behalf of those students, Allan Kabanda, a former drug dealer, said that the centre helped him abandon his drug habit of 14 years.
The 33-year old university drop-out, who addressed the guests in fluent English, said that trafficking heroine, cocaine and marijuana had taken him to different places of the world. But his addiction made him abandon his studies.
“I was living a very reckless life. I was not doing anything responsible. The drugs had taken me to the lowest point in life to the extent that my parents thought I was bewitched,” said Kabanda, whose father, Charles Kabanda was part of the crowd.
The once lifeless, lush green island is littered with flourishing farm projects that grow mushrooms and other vegetables, construction projects, carpentry and tailoring workshops.
According to Nicholas Niyomugabo, the Coordinator of the centre, which is run by the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, Iwawa has 1,617 students of whom 580 are still undergoing rehabilitation while 1,057 are undergoing skills training.
Niyomugabo said that all the projects started by the students at the centre are valued at Rwf 93m, which is a big achievement in itself.
To sum it up, the Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, who spent over an hour touring the island, could not hide his amazement when he interrupted his speech to invite one of the boys who had impressed him explaining a mushroom growing project.
“My friend, will you come here and explain the project you showed us?” Makuza invited the stout young man to the podium, who then explained to the gathering a mushroom farm on a one square acre of land, which can yield a harvest of Rwf 9 million in three months.
The Premier said that when the government decides to start a programme, it considers the good of all Rwandans, adding that it would not change its mind regardless of what critics say.
“We have no problem if these same critics want to come back later to borrow ideas from the same programmes they once criticised. But we will stop at nothing to achieve what we want,” Makuza said.
He cited the traditional Gacaca Courts as one of the government programmes much criticised but which are, today, a reference the world over, with interest from PHD students.
The Premier added that the government would continue to develop the centre to make it the first of its kind in the world, where youth are conferred with both rehabilitation and vocational skills.