For two days now we have been working with Trust & Care, a local organisation run primarily by volunteers providing a variety of support to vulnerable children. Over two days we have met 40 children who are the heads of households, looking after for their younger siblings. Most have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
For today’s distribution we are travelling a little further off the tarmac road – taking a turn onto a little used dirt track that would eventually lead us to a small school where the children would be waiting. The winding, bumpy road went past garden plots of banana trees, bean stalks and coffee plants and where turning a bend we came across a group of young people – one of whom was carrying a bright blue Lifeline radio.
Laurence, 20, looks after three younger siblings and attended our training session the day before. As a subsistence farmer, she was taking her new radio with her to listen to while she tended her garden plot. It was great to see her putting her radio to use, but I had to have a bit of a laugh as well – despite the big handle on the radio and our cheerful instructions during the trainings to “carry it like a handbag!” Laurence was holding the radio in her arms like a baby, with the bottom of the radio nestled in the paper packing carton that came with the box.
When you ask a person in Rwanda what they do most will say they are a farmer. It’s easy to see why – Rwanda is lush and green, and every inch of land seems to be used for agriculture. Most child-headed households in the countryside have small parcels of land left from their parents and on which they grow food. For most of these “farmers” the activities associated with farming – such as selling your produce at the market – simply do not apply. All of them are growing food for subsistence only – they eat what they grow. Some of the kids are supported by extended families that will share extra crops if they have them, or give the children some kerosene. This subsistence life means that these hardworking children are extremely poor – there is no money for school fees, kerosene or candles, or any extra food. A day in the life for these children means fetching water (which could be an hour’s walk each way), working in their gardens, cooking a basic meal and going to bed when it gets dark, which in central Africa is between 6:00 and 7:00 pm.
As soon as I met them and listened to their stories, it was clear that the radios would have a tremendous, positive impact on their lives. The children spoke about how they felt isolated and lonely, how they were uncomfortable imposing on neighbours to listen to radio programmes, how they were tired of relying on others to pass on information. They wanted to listen first-hand from the voices they trusted on the radio. They were eager to learn and spoke of their plans to invite people over to listen to programmes and of how they were going to share with their friends as they worked in the garden every day. The more the kids spoke about what they were going to do with their radios, the more they became visibly excited. A day in their lives was about to change for the better with their radios!
When I first heard the term “child- headed household” in the context of Rwanda, I thought immediately of course of the genocide and of the countless orphaned children left to care for younger siblings. As we prepare to mark 15 years since catastrophic event which left a million children orphaned, the phenomenon of child-headed households is not subsiding – children continue to be orphaned as a direct consequence of acts committed during the genocide. The area we were in today is especially affected – Bugasera district is an area where many Tutsi families were settled following a government programme in the 1950s and consequently was heavily targeted during the genocide. Today’s children are dealing with the effects of the incredibly high number of rapes that occurred. Bugasera now has high rates of HIV/ AIDS and most of the children we were meeting were orphaned because of it. Some had been orphans for as little as two years, while others for as long as ten years.