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Rwanda and Four Kids On Their Own
By Anita Reetz

Problems in Rwanda include a population density of almost 9 million living on 26.34 km squared (half the size of Scotland and near double the population). The Belgian colonizers called it Land of a Thousand Hills, Pays de Mille Collines. Since humans have been living in the Great Rift Valley that extends from Syria through East Africa to Mozambique for over 3 million years, it's not surprising that the land is overworked. Subdivided for countless generations, family farms have been reduced to plots averaging an acre or less. With plots so small, subsistence itself is not assured. Over 36% of Rwanda's population is undernourished according to the FAO.

The beautifully green hills embrace both a blessing and a curse. The altitude of much of Rwanda conveys the blessing of spring-like weather year-round. The population lives mostly one to two miles above sea level (1600-3200 meters), which prevents tropical diseases like malaria, cholera, dengue, tsetse fly transmitted trachoma, and other diseases. The temperature averages a very pleasant 70-80 degrees F most of the year. The curse is erosion. The land receives adequate rainfall (900-110 mm/year), which is somewhat concentrated in the rainy seasons from March-May and August to September, but no month is without rain. Unfortunately, the rainfall over the millennia of farming has eroded the hills and washed away the topsoil. Intensive agriculture has exhausted lowland soil as well. So, in the land of “eternal spring”, the soil is ancient and exhausted.

Also, agriculture is not diversified and I'm not sure why. Maybe because it's subsistence, people grow what they need to eat, which is potatoes, taro, cassava, beans, varieties of bananas, avocados, not much rice as there is little flat land, and a few garden vegetables like carrots, peas, red and white onions, greens somewhat like spinach, and tomatoes. There are two grazing animals: cows and goats. The former are so valuable they are still a measure of wealth given to “buy a bride”; the latter are everywhere. Goats are raised to multiply and be slaughtered for meat, which appears on an average rural family's plate only a few times a year. Chickens and their eggs are a main source of protein.

“Chickens” brings up the story of the four orphans we got to know in western Rwanda, in Kibuye. Imaculee is 14, Mutazabi 12, Eric 10, and Shaban 4. Their parents died of AIDs a few years ago. A British couple, Helen Perry and Patrick Walsh, who worked in Kibuye at the Kigali Health Institute (KHI) in 2007, reached into their pockets and lifted them out of starvation. Orphans are entitled to acquire land from the government as part of the post-genocide social help policies of the present Kagame government. Helen and Paddy supplied the cash and the church community built a small four-room house for the kids, latrine outside, along with the cooking area. The house is built on a cement slab, but there is no electricity or running water, which is the case for most dwellings in Rwanda. The latrine is an outhouse maybe 20 feet from the front door. Helen and Paddy also bought five chickens and four goats, and set up an account at a Kibuye store, whose owner they trusted, so that the kids could get food (potatoes, taro, rice, beans, other staples) on a regular basis. Jim and I followed Helen and Paddy into the KHI guest house on the Kibuye campus and Jeffrey became our houseman after he had worked for Helen and Paddy. Jeffrey was the liaison between us, the muzungu (white foreigners), and the orphans.

Jeffrey told us that the kids had been instructed to collect the chicken eggs, eat a few and keep a few warm to hatch, so there would be a balance between consuming the capital and generating more. At first, they ate all the eggs. “They are only children,” Jeffrey apologized, and reinstructed them on hatching eggs. Jeffrey continued to check in on the kids who live high up on one of hills above Kibuye. But recently he hadn't seen any of their chickens. Where were they?

Jeffrey and I decided to go and see the kids. The sun was bright at 9 am when we got in the car to drive as far as possible to their house. We would walk the rest of the way. I wore sneakers, jeans, a T-shirt and a long-sleeved work shirt, having some idea of struggling through the jungle and needing to be covered. It wasn't necessary. In places the path was about 8 inches wide with a virtual cliff on one side, in other places an SUV could drive through. We passed a few houses, all with little kids in front calling “Muzungu!!” The overwhelming sensation was the quietness, the green rolling hills that we were walking up and down, and up and down again. The nicest house along the way was about 5 X 10 meters and had framed windows. I don't remember window glass, but the openings looked standard size. It was mud-colored and there was a fence in front and several cows, grazing nearby. We walked for an hour, talking about Jeffrey’s plan to go to university in Gisenyi, about the kids and the countryside.

I said Mwaramutsei (good morning) to everyone along the way, mostly because I didn't want to get fishy looks. I waved and smiled and that relaxed people we passed. Jeffrey said Helen and Paddy and I are the only whites they've seen in that area in quite a while.

I didn't recognize the kids when we came upon them. They had on dirty dark blue and brown clothes and no shoes. They just sort of blended into the brown earth they were sitting on. It was Eric and Shaban with three other kids. Jeffrey said “It's the children,” and I registered that it was in fact. We took their hands and started off toward the house. Oh, we're almost there I thought. Jeffrey read my mind and said, “Not yet”. We walked for at least another couple of miles, passing a three-room school house, up and down countless more hills. We saw some stunning views of Lake Kivu. I could see that we lived on a finger of the gigantic lake, which stretched out to infinity, and those amazingly green hills with terraced farming that reached up to the heavens.

The kids' house was down in a little valley. A dilapidated mud brick hut stood in front of it and then the four-room house. A stucco-like plaster covers the exterior halls. It's very dark inside. The “front room” is about 6 feet by 8 feet, furnished with a wooden table. The three boys sleep in another small room to the right, which had one big bed with a mattress and a very dirty bedcover. There were some pegs on one wall and a little shelf on the other. One window, maybe 18 inches square, had shutters that allowed a small amount of light into the room. The other rooms were locked. One of the rooms serves as a store room for supplies, which was locked to prevent theft. Immaculee wasn't there, nor was Mutabazi, the oldest boy.

Then the uncle appeared. This is the kids' uncle who lives just down the hill with his wife and an uncountable number of children. Uncountable because whenever Jeffrey asks the kids how many children the uncle has, they say they can't count them all. This is the man who removed the four chairs Helen and Paddy had bought for the kids to put around their wooden table to create a sit down eating place. When Jeffrey visited and saw the chairs missing and found out that the uncle had taken them, he demanded that he return the chairs to the children. We heard the story of the swiped chairs over dinner one night. “He doesn't care. Nobody cares about the children. Everybody is so selfish!” Jeffrey complained. So here is the guy, somewhere in his forties, in sleeveless T-shirt and dark trousers of indeterminate color, size and shape, walking up the hill to greet us. What transpired over the next twenty minutes was a serious conversation in Kinyarwanda about the children, the goats, the chickens, responsibility and caring…I think.

In a pause in the conversation, Jeffrey translated for me. It seems the chickens were eaten. It wasn't clear who had eaten the chickens. Perhaps one can't ask so direct a question in this culture.

So replacing the chickens was the issue. I wanted to move this discussion along and said, “what if we buy ten chickens and the uncle gets five and the kids get five and the price of his five is watching over all ten?” Another long conversation ensued. Jeffrey offered that the uncle get three chickens and the kids get seven and the uncle would create some enclosure for the chickens. Then cleaning the enclosure would be necessary. Who would do that? Their conversation continued. Finally, it was agreed that at the market next Friday the uncle would come and we would buy ten chickens and he would bring them back to the two houses.

A day later, we learned that the kids didn't eat the chickens. Immaculee sold the chickens. There seems to be a boyfriend in the picture. Jeffrey worked long and hard in conversation with her a night later. He explained that the chickens belonged to the family and she shouldn't sell the family's chickens and keep the money. She should ask permission from Jeffrey before selling any chickens or goats. It turns out she sold all five chickens and also sold two goats. There is no evidence of anything new in their house. She said she bought some body lotion and some shoes…but the prices for the chickens should be about 1800 Rwf each and the goat, bought for 12,000 Rwf, she sold for 6,000. 20,000 Rwf (a little less than $40) is half a month's salary for many Rwandans.

Immaculee stonewalled Jeffrey's questioning. We decided to wait a bit until the story of Immaculee and the mystery boyfriend became clearer.

Meanwhile, the kids went through some emotional turmoil, and then quieted down. Immaculee was not content doing all the work: washing, cooking and taking care of the beans as well as her youngest brother, Shaban. Mutabazi and Eric went to school for half a day each day; their school has double sessions because of overcrowding. Immaculee announced to all that she wanted to leave, and we understood. Jeffrey asked her to give us time to find someone to come in and cook for the three boys. She agreed, but within a week simply disappeared without a word. We got a neighbor to come in and cook one meal a day for the boys, which is all they eat. Within two weeks Immaculee was back without explanation. Meanwhile Mutabazi had taken over running the house. He started cooking and doing the laundry with Eric. Now that Immaculee was back, a power struggle of sorts ensued. Immaculee's brothers accused her of eating some of the family food while she was cooking it, or before the boys came home from school, so Mutabazi wanted to do the cooking for all when he returned home. More discussion. Their solution was to “permit” Immaculee to cook on the promise that she only eat with the others. We haven't yet moved ahead on replacing the chickens. #



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