Wearing a stern face and speaking with a deep patronising voice, a casual onlooker might easily take a villainous perception of Damas Gisimba, as opposed to his real stature of a real philanthropist at heart and soul, with an undying longing to bring hope and a smile to vulnerable groups of people in our society, the very philosophy of Gisimba orphanage.
Owing its roots to the humanitarian activities of Melchior Gisimba of providing food and other forms of help to people devastated by a famine nicknamed Ruzagayura which hit the country in the early 1940’s, the philanthropist pedigree has been carried on with in the compassionate hearts and acts of his sons and grandsons all by the same name.
After Merlchior’s death, this kind-hearted family continued with the philanthropist’s work. They used to help orphans and other groups of vulnerable people from their homes from Butare where they were initially based.
Initially, the Gisimba philanthropist's activities were directed towards all sorts of vulnerable groups including widows, orphans, street children and others. This was changed during the leadership of Pierre Chrisologue Gisimba, a son of the founder Gisimba. He is the one who transformed it to an orphanage in 1981.
Located in Nyamirambo-Kimisagara, the Gisimba memorial centre currently supports 246 orphans. They are between 2-24 years of age.
Damas Gisimba, the current head of the orphanage revealed that they manage to sustain the orphanage on hand outs and support from compassionate people and organisations. This was in response to a question on how the orphanage manages to go by.
This Christmas was my first visit to the centre. The mood was indeed merry, everyone was singing along, others chewing sweets and drinking soda.
As I further penetrated into the orphanage, I noticed a platform on which was a lady musician whom I later came to know as a local singer by the names of Miss Channel.
On asking what was transpiring, I was informed that a group of local musicians had come to celebrate Christmas with the orphans, suddenly everything made sense and that’s when I noticed loudspeakers on the sides.
This realisation was really heart-warming, most especially when I was informed that the same thing had been even done the previous Christmas.
On my second visit which was a day before the New Year’s Eve, all the kids had gone for a mass which was conducted inside the main hall, courtesy of a visiting priest.
All this gave an impression that out there some people feel for these kids and walk their feelings by visiting them to at least make them get affection.
During an interview with Ildephonse Niyongana, the patron of Gisimba, he said that during his tenure at the orphanage, he has faced different experiences and cases of problems faced by orphans at this centre, most of which are psycho-social and financial.
He disclosed that some of the orphans owing to the different painful and disturbing stories behind their fate have suffered trauma and other emotional breakdowns.
The centre is currently experiencing lack of counsellors and psychiatrists to handle cases of traumatised orphans. Apparently, the problemis worse during the genocide commemoration.
The orphanage supports those mainly orphaned by the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and HIV/AIDS.
Ishiimwe Deborah is one of the orphans at Gisimba memorial centre. She is seven years old. Together with her three brothers and one sister, they joined the orphanage five years ago when their parents died of HIV/AIDS.
‘‘They were brought here by their neighbours after the death of their parents. They had no one to take care of them,’’ said Ildephonse.
Deborah and her siblings are now studying at Kabusungu primary school. They however hope to join a better school courtesy of their recently got friend and sponsor by the names of Emma Weld-Moore from Ireland.
Though some of these orphans get basic needs support from the orphanage management, the truth remains that most of them are still needy and vulnerable, most especially on the issue of school fees.
During an interview with Gisimba, he said that they are facing a challenge of getting school fees for most orphans especially those who have no sponsors yet.
This orphanage has endured many hardships. The most vivid triumph was during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi when it acted as a safe haven to some people being hunted by the Interahamwe militias.
Gisimba recalls the day when he boldly confronted and succeeded in stopping the Interahamwe militia who had come with a determination to enter the centre in search of Tutsis assumed to be hiding in there.
He adds that on many occasions he bribed the Militia leaders to sway them away from entering the orphanage, and that it is through these efforts and God’s grace that 405 people who were hiding in the centre were saved.
Gisimba challenges the youth to take the mantle of working for the welfare of the society through caring for the vulnerable groups because he also started these charitable responsibilities when he was just 24 years old.
He further calls upon the entire public and humanity lovers to join him and support vulnerable people, especially orphans.