New light for new hope in Rwanda

What a sobering, centering day in Rwanda.

The first thing I noticed was her eyes.  Lifeless, dull.  There was no sparkle there.  You could detect a silent suffering in her eyes, which appeared dead.  She doesn’t make eye contact.  She fidgets and constantly looks away.  She has a proud bearing, but you can feel the shameful secret lying just below the surface of her vacant stare.

She is neatly dressed, well groomed and her home was immaculate.  The dirt floor was swept clean, and the mud wall had a decoration of a page from a newspaper showing a soccer player.  The room had a stool and a bed.  Nothing else.  We sat on the bed.  The second room of her home, glimpsed behind a sheet curtain, held the bed for her little brother, and nothing else.

She is 17 years old and her brother is 11.  Her name is Furaha and her brother is Sibomana.  Shortly after Furaha was born in 1996 in Uganda, her father left the family and Furaha, her mother and grandmother, made their way to the refugee camp in Rwanda called Kiziba.  Furaha has now lived in the Kiziba refugee camp for 17 years, her entire life.

Her brother was born in 2003. In 2005 both her mother and grandmother died.  Aside from occasional visits from the Children’s Protection group in the camp, Furaha has raised her brother alone for the last nine years.

Let me tell you a little about the Kiziba camp, where I spent eight hours today.  There are 3,750 families who live there.  All live in mud houses, many they built themselves.  The mud walls need to be refreshed each year as they begin to disintegrate during the rainy season.  Each house has a plastic sheet for a roof provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).  Nothing is green.  Everything is covered in a reddish sheen of dust. The 3,750 families are tightly situated on a hillside.  There is no room to expand. The filth is astonishing.

This is a camp, not a community.  No one could tell me when a camp becomes a community, even after 17 years.  I met the Camp President, who looked no more than 20.  I was told he was likely 40. Apparently, malnourishment causes this delayed appearance of aging.

No one works here.  The tedium and boredom is palpable.  It’s hot, dusty and boring, a formula for trouble.   Occasionally there’s a day job someone can get outside of the camp, or a job providing the mud wash on a house for pay, but the real “currency” is food.  The UNHCR provides enough food for the monthly diet.  Sell some of your monthly ration, and you’ll go to bed hungry near the end of the month.  Most residents here do. And if the man of the house drinks, and alcoholism is rampant, his family will be hungry for days.

There is no overt economy in the camp, although many residents sell some of their monthly food rations (maize, beans, a little oil and salt) for the occasional vegetable or item of clothing.  Inevitably when they sell some food, they are short on food as the month comes to an end.  To earn extra money for food, many of the girls and women resort to the sex trade to earn 500 to 2,000 Rwandan Francs or $1-4 (U.S.).

There are 12 latrines in the camp for 17,000 people.  They are unbelievably smelly.  Just last year a four-year-old boy fell through the floor when the rotted floorboards cracked.  He drowned in the hundreds of gallons of filth below.

There is no electricity and hence no light.  Routinely, women and girls are raped at night when they walk the considerable distance in the pitch dark to the toilet.  They don’t scream out when they are attacked because they’d then be shamed by others in the camp knowing they had been raped.

I asked Furaha why she wasn’t in school.  She told me she had started failing her classes when she had to take care of her brother. I asked why her brother wasn’t in school.  She told me she didn’t have the 200 Rwandan Francs required for his haircut—20 cents (U.S.) and for his food coupon for the month—altogether 40 cents (U.S.). As long as she didn’t have the money, her brother couldn’t return to school.

I asked Furaha about her aspirations, her dreams for the future.  She thought for a long time, vacantly staring ahead.  The question stumped her.  Finally, she replied that she wanted to take good care of her brother, and that she’d someday like to go back to school.  That was her dream, but nothing long term.

This is a very sad place.  It needs our help.  New light will be the beginning of change for Furaha and her brother.  The Global BrightLight Foundation plans to provide a solar lantern to each family in the camp.  A $35 solar lantern will change the lives of 3,750 families.  Next month I will be writing many of you to ask for your support of the Kiziba amp cand other camps like it.  When you get my letter, please join me in changing lives, one light at a time.

-Joe