RWANDA: Locals taking AIDS orphans, widows under their wing

Photo: Aimable Twahirwa/IRIN
Giving kids back their childhood
kigali, 23 November 2006 (PlusNews) - The continued poverty and suffering in Rwanda, 12 years after the genocide, is spurring local people to take responsibility for orphans rather than wait for handouts.

"I survived the genocide but my parents did not. After looking after my brothers and sisters I looked around and saw many more children who needed support, like I received from friends and neighbours when I was a child," said Emmanuel Ngabire, who founded of the Rebero Orphans Centre with Leonce Mpenzi.

The centre, in the suburb of Gikondo, in the capital, Kigali, cares for 70 orphans and 18 widows who contracted the HI virus through sexual violence during the genocide.

An estimated 270,000 Rwandan children have lost one or both parents to AIDS-related illnesses, while 800,000 people are thought to have died in the genocide, leaving the country with the highest number of child-headed households in Africa. Rape was deliberately used to intimidate members of the minority Tutsi community and moderate Hutus.

The Rebero centre, where the children come to play after school each day, is supported largely by a group of Rwandan professionals, who donate an average of US$230 per month to feed the children and widows, and also chip in for medical expenses and other emergencies.

Jacqui Sebageni, one of the centre's benefactors, commented, "When we first met these two young men in April, I was struck by the fact that even though they were themselves on a survival level, they reached out to help people in the same situation."

NGOs and the government provide support in their respective capacities, but orphans also need the guidance and support that people with intact families often take for granted. "Because of our country's history, most Rwandan families that have some means are supporting four or five other families," Sebageni said.

Mpenzi met many of the centre's patrons while working as a waiter at Kigali's Intercontinental Hotel. When he had enough pledges of support, he left his job and became a full-time volunteer at the centre.

Twenty-three of the children are HIV-positive, including Jean-Pierre, 6, (not his real name), a shy football enthusiast. "Both his parents are infected," Mpenzi said. "The whole family is on antiretrovirals and his parents are too poor to pay the small fees ... when he starts primary school next year."

Jean-Pierre's family, like the families of other orphans and widows supported by the centre, receives seven kilos of beans and six kilos of flour every month.

Another beneficiary is Venancia Nyirabuzara, 53, whose husband and much of her extended family were killed during the genocide, leaving her with three children. She contracted HIV after surviving a brutal sexual attack when she was three months pregnant and transmitted it to her son, now 12 years old.

"I wanted to die after the genocide; even when I started falling ill and had a serious skin infection I refused to seek medical treatment," Nyirabuzara said. "I hated everyone around me and my children suffered; we had little food and no money because I didn't work."

Ngabire visited her five months ago and encouraged her to join a support group for women who were HIV-positive as a result of suffering sexual violence during the genocide. He also started bringing her weekly rations of flour and beans, and urged her to be tested and seek treatment.

"He took me to meet these women who showed me that I was not the only one with the same problem. I can be free and talk to them about my illness and my experience," Nyirabuzara said. "My children are also happier now that I am more active and not so depressed; I realised that when I was suffering, they were as well."

Since she began a course of life-prolonging antiretroviral medication five months ago, her CD-4 count [which measures the strength of the immune system] has risen from 210 to 320, but she has not yet told her son that he is HIV-positive, or that she is, but hopes she will have the courage to do so soon.

Ngabire and Mpenzi are trying to build a home where they can focus on caring for underprivileged HIV-positive children. "God protected me during the genocide and I promised that I would protect others," said Mpenzi. "Our community must care for these orphans - if we care for each other we will never see the same kind of killings again."


Theme (s): Children,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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