Sixteen year-old Estelle Uwamahoro, at the end of 2008, moved to Kigali with the hope of getting a job. With the help of a friend she was taken up by a lovely young couple in Kacyiru. They promised to pay her Rwf12,000 per month if she worked diligently.
She was delighted to have a job, somewhere to sleep and food to eat. This for her was far better than the life she led in her village of Gashora in Bugesera district far away in the Eastern Province of Rwanda.
Being a total orphan of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Uwamahoro together with her youngest sister, now 15 years old, were left alone.
Fortunately, an old woman picked them from their house, adopted them when they were still babies and nurtured them in poverty.
“She had nothing because she was old, but she fed us and looked after us until we grew up,” Uwamahoro said.
Uwamahoro goes on and narrates how her newly found job, turned sour. As soon as she checked in, her dreams of a better life faded into thin air.
“They started calling me names, shouting at me and overworking me,” she slowly says.
Her normal day started at 4:00 a.m cooking breakfast for her employees, (she refuses to mention their names), and thereafter she labored washing dishes and clothes, cooking, mopping the house and eventually slept at 10:00pm when everyone had gone to bed.
Uwamahoro had a lot contained inside her. As she tells her story, the pain and bitterness that showed on her facial expression was obvious. She couldn’t hide it any more as her voice cracked under the heaviness she bore.
“I worked hard for four months with no pay, endured all the verbal abuse because I wanted to get paid,” she said, “…but when I persistently asked for my whole salary, I was given only Rwf6000 and chased away.”
With nowhere to go, no food to eat and no place to sleep, Uwanmahoro took to the road, got on a bus and went back to her village. She used the money to buy school materials for her 15 year-old sister and buy a gift for the old woman.
Her stay was short lived because the poverty at her home, was chocking. With her little savings, she got back on a bus and returned to Kigali, this time with an informed decision- to earn a salary at the end each month.
Another friend of hers who also worked as a nanny told her about ‘Kigali Service for Vision’, a househelp association that required Rwf 2000 to become a member.
Located on Kimichanga road next to ‘One Love Centre’ towards town, the association empowers these homeless youth through training and finding jobs for them.
The association was founded by a middle aged woman called Betty Uwera in 2005. Being a former househelp, she realized the need to take up stranded young men and women between the ages of 17 to 29 and provide them with the opportunity to get hired by clients as househelps or security guards in the case of men.
Through the association, clients pay a fee of Rwf3,000 before they sign a contract of agreement that ensures that they will feed, pay Mituelle- health insurance- and a monthly salary of Rwf10,000 and more to a househelp depending on the amount of work. They are also entitled to day-offs.
At the end of each month, a fee of Rwf1000 is deposited by every member of ‘Kigali Service for Vision’ so as to sustain its growth and also help other homeless youth.
“I founded this association because I saw the need that all these young people had,” Uwera said.
Now five years down the road, Uwera, has two small houses where she accommodates and feeds homeless youths as they wait their turn to be hired.
“I have a dream of building more houses that can accommodate more homeless people,” she said.
Uwera said that she sometimes feels discouraged by the way employees treat their househelps.
Sometimes cases of rape, violence and exploitation are reported on the part of the workers while theft is incurred by the employers. When such incidents happen Uwera said the local leaders and police are alerted to solve such issues.
“These are not common for members of our association because we train them to carry out their duties professionally,” Uwera added.
Unlike Uwamahoro’s employees, there are Rwandans who treat househelps as part of their family. Babara Mukamugema said that she has maintained her housemaid for over 10 years now.
“She is trustworthy, clean and hardworking, Mukamugema said, “and her reliability has earned her a special place in our family.”
Mukamugema said she feels her home and children are safe when she is not around because Mwali (the 32 year old-maid) is reliable and professional.
Over the years her pay has increased to Rwf30,000 per month. Mwali is also entitled to medical and transport allowances.
“This is my home and I am already part of the family because they treat me well,” Mwali said.
Despite various challenges that mar the life of a househelps, many people have come to recognize the role they play as the custodians of Rwanda’s homes.