Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Day 1 in the Field

Preface: In addition to teaching English to the boys at Les Enfants de Dieu (EDD), part of my time is spent with the social workers as the ultimate goal of the project is to support and foster family structure in Rwanda.  The aim is to eventually place boys back with family, if there is family, and nurture healthy relationships.  I spend time in the field where we try and start the rebuilding process. Here is one story...

Alex is 17 years old and has never met his father.  He is a quiet boy who has a calm demeanor.  I am unsure what exactly prompted him to leave home and take refuge on the streets but he made his way to EDD 4 years ago and now the time had come to find Alex's father. 

In the States when someone decides to reunite with an estranged sister or biological parent, many turn to private investigators who scour public records and spend hours making phone calls.  Here, when the journey for a lost relative begins you go knocking on doors, on drives around towns and villages, and talk to countless strangers.  For Alex, we began at his sister's home, down a bumpy dirt road built into the hillside, asking if she knew where to look.  All she could tell us was that her mother should know.  So, with the help of a neighbor we made our way to Rwanda Coffee where she worked.

Rwanda Coffee is an operation unlike anything I've ever seen.  A hill of buildings and warehouses and semi-trucks.  Women wander the property as they take breaks from sorting beans.  The warehouse, where we eventually located Alex's mom, was astounding! Hundreds of women line the floor sitting in front of piles two feet high of coffee beans.  One hundred kilo bag of coffee make barriers between the groups of women.  I felt sort of sick as I stood and watched the women sift through millions of beans.  On one hand they are employed and making some sort of income but I could not imagine sitting day after day on a concrete floor picking through small bits of caffeine. 

Alex's mom took us to town where she thought the father might be; an area of small shops, random hardware stores and people sitting around socializing.  We began asking if anyone knew him.  Door to door we went, every time the answer was no, with the one exception of the local drunk who knew a boxer by that name.  We were told maybe we should find a phone number. Hmmm, we hadn't though of that one! I just felt really discouraged and every time I looked at Alex I just felt sad.  Seventeen years and he has never know half of who he is. 

The only other thing his mother could think of was a motor bike driver who knew where he lived.  But when a motorbike driver can be anywhere in a fifteen mile radius, and this particular one is phone-less, finding him is about as easy as finding the needle in the haystack.  Maybe it goes without saying that at the end of it all, Alex would spend another day without his father. 

He turned to me as we drove away, not much closer than we were hours before, and said, "It's very hard."  I hastily replied, "I know.  Trying to find your father is not going to be easy, it is very difficult."  But what I think he really meant was that having spent 17 years not knowing his father was very hard.  I could see it in his eyes. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Little Slice of Kid Heaven- Les Enfants de Dieu

At the age of 8, when asked what his father's occupation is, Kaka responds, "to beat me."  In the 8 short years of his life this child, too small to defend himself, knows his father only by the beatings he has received.  It is written all over his face, scars mark his left eye and cheek.  Though the scars may never fade from his small face, there is now something else that will not fade either. 

Les Enfants de Dieu (EDD) is a rehabilitation center for 126 street boys, all brought from the streets where they were left to fend for themselves.  These boys as young as 7 have spent their days and nights searching for food, money and shelter with no help from anyone on the streets of Kigali.  They leave home in hopes of finding money growing on trees in the big city, some are orphans, many have been abused but one thing they all are is children.  They all deserve a life free from struggle and pain.

Many boys come to the center with broken spirits, lots struggle with addiction problems. Les Enfants de Dieu becomes a home, a family, and a second chance at childhood.  Going from living a life of free-will on the streets and coming to the center where there are rules can be a rough transition for some.  Kaka I was told tried to run away many times, there are others who have gone and never come back, but for those who stay the impact is obvious. 

All day long at the center you hear laughing and screaming; constant chatter where there is hardly a moment of calm, that is how it should be.  These 126 boys no longer have to worry where their next meal is coming from, they can focus on school and more importantly who won last night's football match.  They run and jump and play, sometimes they fight, but what brothers don't?  They perfect their football skills and dance to all the latest hits.  Some write raps about life on the streets, as they can never forget where they've come from, but now at least they can share it with their 125 brothers and go to bed knowing they're safe.  They can just be kids.

And Kaka is now working hard on reading and writing, his letters are starting to take shape.  He rarely stops to stand still, always in motion with a big toothy grin pasted on his face.  EDD has given Kaka back his childhood, and though his scars will remain his smile outshines them all!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

From Toubab to Muzungu

If I have learned anything the last two months, it's that making plans is rather arbitrary, especially in Africa.  I can no longer count how many times my plans have changed, and each time for a multitude of reasons.  But I found a scene of freedom in not having plans to follow.  I think that we schedule and organize every second of our day in order to make some sense of the chaos that is life.  But I am beginning (and I say beginning because it is hard to completely surrender from color-coordinated day planners) to see the beauty in enjoying life as it unfolds.

If you asked me two months ago where I would be today, I would probably tell you that I would be relaxing at a cafe in Freetown, catching up on emails and recovering from a busy week of work.  If you ask me today where I am today, I will tell you that I am in fact across the African continent in Kigali, Rwanda sitting outside listening to someone playing a harmonica.  This was definitely not the plan.

I have now been a Muzungu (foreigner in Kinyarwanda) for the last few days after being a Toubab (foreigner in Wolof) for the last two months.  Neither of these titles were part of my itinerary when I left the states but they have woven their way into my life and I am happy they have.  Unexpected but perfect and exactly as it is supposed to be.

In Gambia, without plans and disappointed, I struggled to except that life is not actually about the plans.  But being a Toubab has been a real gift.  I spent two months living with an incredible family, sweating from morning to night, fasting for Ramadan (well not really), seeing chimpanzees and working with wonderful youth.  I spent two solid months with Alex, which doesn't happen often.  Two months that I will never ever forget. 

I am now a Mugunzu, in the heart of Africa.  I had plans to be somewhere else but I have quickly found that there was not where life wanted me. So, forget the plans, Rwanda is right where I need to be.