Inside his quaint house situated deep in the slums of Kimisagara, there are pictures of religious icons like Mother Teresa, Jesus Christ, and the Uganda Martyrs emblazoned on all corners of the wall.
“These are people who made a difference in others’ lives,” Mzee Antoine Bizimana tells us.
Before, we had to make it passed Street Kids of Rwanda Centre, where we met children ranging from three-year-olds to adults who are now in various vocational training centres and schools. We were met by one Claude Hashakimana at the bus stop who told us that his “father” would meet us shortly in his house.
At the centre, the small children are busy playing in the dusty backyard – not with toys like small children of more affluent backgrounds – but with ashes and some pieces of wood. Later, they are called into some small derelict building to be served food – rice and beans, to be exact.
After their meals, the young ones frolic around the compound while the older ones wash their clothes and “dormitories.” Some are also in a classroom being taught by their peers.
The buildings are stark and simple; they have shared bedrooms, a classroom, pit latrine, and cooking areas. There is no running water or electricity, so water must be carried in jugs. The buildings are located on a steep hillside accessible only by footpaths.
We are told that funds are needed to complete the newer building and to connect water and electricity to the centre.
But even though the place looks “frugal” by any standard, it’s what these children call home, where they have immense hope for the future and the happiness in their faces attest to this.
We later meet Mzee Antoine Bizimana at his house, some 200 meters away from the centre. It’s a winding road, climbing the steep hills and narrow streets through Kimisagara slums. When we finally arrive there, we are stricken by his humility.
Bizimana tells us that the centre is not an orphanage but a family, and the 60 children we passed by at the centre are all his “children.”
He says that he started the centre to rescue children who were traumatized by the Genocide in 1998. He narrates that the 1994 Genocide, which brutally claimed the lives of more than one million people, left behind thousands of orphans. In addition, HIV/Aids and poverty continue to force many of them to the streets.
These are the children Bizimana picks from the streets and gives them hope at the centre. He provides them with food, education, and accommodation with his meager resources that he gets from his work as a mechanic. A former street child himself, Bizimana says he was inspired by the story of children who suffered cruelly from the tragic Genocide to give them the opportunity to reconstruct their lives.
“We even pick infants from the streets that have been thrown away by their mothers,” he says, adding that even though he doesn’t have enough resources to take care of all their needs, he normally makes sure that they never go to bed hungry. He tells us that over 300 former street children have been trained at his garage and most of them are now doing something with their lives.
Currently, his garage, aptly called Fasha Umwana (Help a Child) employs some 400 street children, though some do not live at his centre.
“This world is dirty but if everybody can take a broom and sweep a corner, then we can have a world free of dirt. I try as much as possible to ensure that the unfortunate children have some hope to look forward to,” he says.
Claude Hashakimana, who refers to the old man as his father, tells us that Mzee Bizimana has been their pillar of hope and that despite his scant resources, he is the type of a person who denies himself luxuries just to make sure the children have something to eat and some form of education.
“Father is not an ordinary person. His philanthropic heart raises him to the pantheon of saints,” says Hashakimana.
He adds that Mzee Bizimana has provided many street children with an opportunity to reconstruct their lives and as one of the beneficiaries of such a big heart, he has learned that “a big heart doesn’t require big money”.