A rough road (Rwanda)

February 23, 2012. Interview translated by Sylvie Iraguha.

Rafiki sits in class, laughing with friends and having porridge during their morning break. The tongues of his muddy Reeboks stick out, unrestrained by shoelaces. His shoes aren't worn and dirty from the normal roughhousing of a 12-year-old boy. Rafiki is in the middle class at Theoneste and Mariette Byamamare's catch-up school for street kids; he has walked a tough road to get here.

When Rafiki was five, his father died and his mother married another man. His mother and stepfather had two more children. The stepfather favored his own biological offspring, treating Rafiki like a servant. Rafiki had to cook for the family while his younger brothers went to school.

"Why don't you let me go to school?" Rafiki asked his mother.

"You know you have to stay home. You don't have the right to go to school," explained his mother, who didn't work and needed to stay in good graces with her husband. His drinking habit left little income to support his family, so Rafiki seemed like a free labor opportunity.

"The biggest problem, I think, is poverty," said Rwanda Partners Program Coordinator Sylvie Iraguha. "When the family is poor, they are not able to take care of all the kids."

One day while Rafiki was fetching water a thief came and stole everything from the house. The stepfather accused Rafiki of working with the thief and refused to feed him. Finally after discussing their situation, Rafiki and some of his friends decided to leave Gisenyi and move to Kigali to find life on the street.

"We used to steal from the market. Begging, asking for food, sometimes smoking," Rafiki remembered. "That's how life was."

Rafiki and his friends stole a radio once and were thrown in prison for three days. In the main prison, inmates get food. But Rafiki was in a smaller prison, and if you didn't have someone to bring you food, you wouldn't get any. There was only a pot for a toilet, and Rafiki had to empty the pot in return for food from the older inmates.

When the the young boys were released, the guards asked if they had parents. The boys lied that they did, in fact, have parents, and were able to leave with a strict warning. They returned to the streets to continue surviving that life.

Then, Rafiki's mother and step father moved to Kigali. The stepfather begged Rafiki to come home, claiming that he had changed. That proved a lie. Rafiki was not even allowed to eat when he moved back.

"… my stepfather kept abusing me… He chased me out," Rafiki said. The stepfather asked a friend and his wife if Rafiki could live with them, and Rafiki said goodbye to his mother once again.

"Mama, I'm going. I can't live this life. You see, it's tough here," he explained.

The man and woman Rafiki went to live with moved a few of times. Rafiki at least had food and somewhere to sleep, but still, he was not allowed to go to school because the couple couldn't pay school fees.

But then, a friend told Rafiki about the catch-up school and that he wouldn't have to pay school fees. He started attending the school a year ago. He walks two hours to and from school every day. Rafiki is still living with the couple, but says that life there is tough.

"The man treats me badly because he's a friend of my step father. They don't take care of me," Rafiki said. "Life is not easy even there."

It's difficult for Rafiki even to get clothes. The pants he wears were given to him by a neighbor. Yet Rafiki perseveres.

"I have hope that I will survive. I have hope that I will live," Rafiki says. He begins to cry a little, but he still looks tough and tenacious. "I felt hopeless to see other kids going to school and me staying home taking care of the kids. I was very, very sad at home. But now, I thank God that at least I'm in a school. I have hope that I will live a good life."

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