LESSONS IN SURVIVAL FOR CHILDREN OF WAR
by Julia Spry-Leverton
Kigali -- Thomas, seven, and Marcel, nine, meet at the street corner beside a heap of rotting garbage thrown out from Kigali's central market. The two boys have been friends since they began devising survival strategies for living off the streets of Rwanda's capital.
Both boys are from the country. Accustomed to the slow pace and strong family ties that characterise rural life, they had to adapt quickly to the city's rapid pulse and harsh realities.
Like many children joining the ragged clusters of Kigali's homeless, Thomas and Marcel are victims of Rwanda's 1994 war, which left nearly 100,000 children orphaned or separated from their parents.
Both boys fled their villages when ethnic massacres killed their parents. They walked for days to reach the city.
Marcel recounts the story of his recent life in five short lines: "I ran away from my village when the soldiers came. I walked to the city with many people on the roads. I came to get food from outside the market. I get money now from selling nuts, and sometimes I buy eggs to sell. I sleep in the market hall."
Thomas makes a living picking over the garbage for things to eat or sell. Marcel started out that way, but has made enough cash to buy eggs or peanuts, which he hawks around the market. They both go barefoot and wear ragged clothes.
Estimates of the numbers of children working - and often sleeping rough - on the streets of Kigali range from 600 to 4,000, depending on whether or not the children are documented.
To address the problem, the government issued a circular nationwide advising city residents and visitors to refrain from handing out coins to the children.
It suggests channeling charity "through relevant institutions or organisations." But such organisations are a rarity, providing for only a fraction of the need.
Clinging to one of Kigali's steep hills are three huts that function as a job-skills training centre for street children. The Centre d'Acceuil, or Welcome Centre, caters for teenage boys. It is funded by Caritas, a Catholic aid agency, and run by the Dominican order.
Here, in addition to playing sports and continuing their education, boys learn skills such as carpentry, horticulture and tailoring. They are given lunch once a week, after Friday morning's strenuous horticulture session.
"They use the afternoons to earn money for food," says Father Didier, a Swiss Dominican monk, who heads the centre. But, as Didier explains, it is becoming harder for the boys to earn a few cents from odd jobs as they compete with increasing numbers of children working their territory.
"We constantly emphasise the importance of the training they are receiving in a society which, under stress itself, takes a hard view of giving them any charity."
But even though up to 60 students are trained at a time, only about half take the courses seriously, says one of the teachers, John Nyirimanze.
"The discipline of regular study frequently eludes these boys," explains Nyirimanze, "because they are exposed to temptations on the street."
Among the worst of the temptations is glue-sniffing, a cheap thrill for many street children, who can rarely afford drugs or alcohol. Nyirimanze reports that the boys often arrive for their morning classes disoriented. Prolonged glue-sniffing can impair mental function.
Didier says the needs of street children far surpass the means to deal with them. "One drop of water in an ocean of need" is how he describes the current care provided.
As in most African cities, street children had become a fixture of life in Kigali well before the war broke out.
The first centre to cater for these children opened in 1988 with funds from Caritas. By 1993, Caritas had assisted two more, including a residential home for girls, accommodating 30 boarders. Children use the centres as clubs and for leisure activities, skills training and basic education.
Aid to street children was halted temporarily when one of the centres was attacked and some of the youngsters and staff killed during the 1994 massacres. But work began again later that year.
The number of street children is expected to rise as refugees and other people displaced by the war return to Kigali.
"Many of the adults travelling with one or more orphans or children separated from their families will find they cannot manage the extra mouths to feed in the expensive city and they will let the children go," says Ignace Munyaneza, a government social worker. "The existing centres for unaccompanied children will not be able to cope with the influx."
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Save the Children and other relief groups, is working with the Ministry of Rehabilitation on plans to deal with the expected upsurge.
Didier would like to see more attention paid to the root causes of the problem - especially poverty and war.
"Ultimately," he says, "the solution for this society will have to be worked out here."
About the Author: JULIA SPRY-LEVERTON is a writer specialising in children's affairs in Africa.