Freed from drug gang: How Iwawa turned round Kabera’s life

Vianney Kabera voluntarily dropped out of school in 2008, while a Senior Two student at College De Bethel Aparude in Ruhango. “I left school out of peer pressure, and instead secretly enrolled for a driving course because it is what my peers were doing.”
Vianney Kabera. Sunday Times/Courtesy
Vianney Kabera. Sunday Times/Courtesy

On December 20, more than 1,000 youths were discharged from Iwawa Rehabilitation and Skills Development Centre, armed with life-changing skills. One of the grandaunts of the day was Vianney Kabera. He told The Sunday Times’ Moses Opobo how 16 months of intensive training transformed his life from a substance abuser to a professional with huge ambitions.

Vianney Kabera voluntarily dropped out of school in 2008, while a Senior Two student at College De Bethel Aparude in Ruhango. “I left school out of peer pressure, and instead secretly enrolled for a driving course because it is what my peers were doing.”

After failing to obtain a driver’s license, the young man abandoned driving school to fully embrace a jobless street life. Soon, he had accumulated a reasonable circle of like-minded juveniles, and together, they steadily slid into delinquent behavior like smoking marijuana, reckless drinking, and theft.

The 22 year-old still has fresh memories of a particular incident when he was nabbed by the police in Ruhango: “We were a large group, all smoking marijuana and cigarettes. Unfortunately, when the police raided, it is only me they found with joints of marijuana in my pockets. I was arrested and detained at Ruhango Police Post for three days.”

A rift soon grew between Kabera and his family back home, as he drifted deeper and deeper into the company of his street friends.

Unknown to him, however, his parents in Ruhango and siblings who live in Kicukiro, a suburb of Kigali, were secretly plotting a course of action to bring their wayward boy back to the family fold.

On the morning of October 24 2012, while relaxing at home, Kabera was stunned to see a Police Patrol Pick Up truck rave up to the family compound. Shortly, he was arrested and bundled onto the truck, and swiftly whisked off to an unknown destination.

“I was taken to Kwa Kabuga (a juvenile detention facility in Gikondo), where I found many other youths who had been forced to go there by their parents,” recalls Kabera. “In all, 20 of us were arrested in various operations staged that day.”

He still vividly recalls the entire ordeal, being his first stint in a detention facility. “There were the usual conditions you find in a prison, like eating only one meal, and taking one bath a day, being teased and having your personal belongings taken by older inmates.” 

A week after his detention, six more boys were brought into the facility on similar delinquent charges, most picked up by the police upon request by the respective parents.

On November 17 2012, all inmates were supplied with shoes, stockings, toothpaste and writing materials, after which they were briefed about their impending relocation the following day.

Moving to Iwawa

The Iwawa Rehabilitation and Skills Development Centre at Boneza Sector, Rutsiro District in Western Province is where Kabera and his fellow inmates found themselves the following day.

Opened on February 2, 2010, with two regular intakes every year, the centre equips youth with relevant skills for future employment and empowers them to play an active role in developing both their families and nation at large. 

Besides rehabilitation and facilitating hands-on vocational training in carpentry, building, tailoring and commercial farming, the centre also equips youth with positive values and life skills through basic courses in literacy and numeracy, language courses, and IT.

The center is organised into five learning sections, boasts several dormitories, workshops, and a health clinic. In the extensive fields the youths learn the basics of commercial farming, tilling food crops like mushrooms and eggplants.

Kabera recalls the first three months at the center as extremely tough and trying: “In that time, we were not allowed any form of recreation like sports or watching TV. There was no going to bed before 10:00pm, and we had to be out of bed at 4:00am.”

Typically, the day begins at 5:30 am for students, when all are expected to be up from their beds. Between this time and 8:00am, they congregate according to their different course units, hold discussions, clean up their dormitories, take a shower, and generally freshen up in preparation for the day.

“From 8:00am we are in class till noon, when we would break off for lunch, before going back to class until 3:00pm. At 3:30, we went for a shower either in Lake Kivu or in the shower rooms. At 5:30 pm we had supper, and if it was a weekday, followed it with discussions in our groups. On weekends, we would be allowed to watch some movies after supper.”

Unlike in the police cells that he had visited on his way to Iwawa, Kabera states those visitation days never came frequently at the center. “Visitations are arranged after three months, and announcements are made on radio to those concerned. I was lucky to be visited by both my friends and family members,” he says with a tinge of pride, adding: 

“The visitation kicks off with parents being briefed by the administration about why their parents are here, and what is being done to rehabilitate them. Personally, my mother, on her first visit, was shocked to discover that I was not in prison but a rehabilitation center. She even got more shocked when I told her about the vocational courses we were studying. She was so touched that she asked if I was now prepared to be a better son and citizen, and asked me to tell her how she could help me after getting out.”

Rehabilitation is the first component that the delinquent youths are introduced to upon joining the centre.

For this reason, Iwawa dedicates the first nine months to rehabilitation and counseling of the youths to change their mindset. The rehabilitation phase is composed of a number of courses that enable them to change behavior and develop a value system that will support them to become responsible and productive citizens.

Lessons learnt in the rehabilitation phase are consolidated and complimented by civic education training.

Out of the three professional courses available to choose from (Tailoring, Brick Laying and Construction, and Carpentry), Kabera settled for Brick Laying and Construction, as he would easily find work at a construction site after work.  The course would take another six months.

On December 20, 2013, Kabera’s Christmas arrived early when he was handed a certificate in brick laying and construction during a graduation ceremony held at the center. He was one of the 1,113 youths who were passed out by the institution after more than one year of rehabilitation and vocational training on the Island. Of these, 732 were trained in construction, 261 in carpentry and 120 in tailoring.

“After getting my certificate and being passed out, I felt happy that my life had changed. I knew I would soon be able to put the skills I had just acquired to use in order to live a better life.

Two days after his graduation, he returned to his mother who now lives in Kicukiro, Kigali, and was welcomed back with a feast like the biblical prodigal son. “My parents and siblings were very happy to receive me back in the family as a reformed person. I learnt that they had done what they did out of love, not hatred for me.”

Moving on

Kabera is all grateful for the 16-month experience at the facility: “I learnt the value of responsibility in whatever I do, that I have to do things when they need to be done.  I also learnt the value of hard work in attaining whatever goals I may have.”

Particularly, he feels forever indebted to Nicholas Niyomugabo, the coordinator of Iwawa Center who “supported and taught me about the benefits of positive change, but above all, the benefit of striving to change others; that once you make a mistake, it’s important to learn from it, so that you do not repeat the same mistake.”

I ask if he has been able to hook up with his former buddies, now that he is back from rehabilitation. “Since coming back, I’ve been trying to trace some of my old friends and if possible try to convince them about changing.” Instead, he has had to fight off pressure from some of them to return to his old ways. 

“I always find a polite way of turning them down,” he says, adding; “Most of them can’t believe or imagine the changed man that I have become. I don’t expect to backslide, so I’ve decided against avoiding them. Instead, I try to talk to them about my changed life and the dangers in their habits. I want to positively influence them to take a bold step like me, but I can’t do that if I avoid them. Whenever I talk to them, they see my point, but many confess they can’t change immediately, so it’s a matter of time. I understand, because I went through the same. My mind only changed when I went into the rehab and got professional counseling from trained psychologists.”

The future

Now that he is back home and a changed man, Kabera is intent on continuing on the path of righting all the wrongs of his past. “I have taken stock of my past mistake, which was dropping out of school for no reason. Now I want to be an exemplary boy as my parents have been exemplary to me. I want to go back to school and complete my education which I destroyed by dropping out of school. Actually I’m looking for a school to join this January.”

He is still undecided on the career path to take, and plans to take an informed decision to that end after completing his Form Three. His final counsel to fellow youths that find themselves in his former situation is: “They should quit drugs. In case you need professional help, go to the Anti Drug Association Rwanda to get all the necessary info on the dangers of drug abuse.”

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