In 2006, Tech Museum of Innovation Award Laureates were invited to the opening of the Nasdaq Stock Exchange in New York City. Just by chance I happened to be in town. Afterwards the group gathered outside in Times Square to pose for photos.
I couldn’t believe it. Unbeknownst to me, a picture that I’d taken in 2004 of 14-year-old Jonathan Macumi, a Rwandan orphan, with his Lifeline radio balancing on his hoe, flashed across their digital billboard. The Tech Museum had first used this picture on the cover of their 2005 Tech Awards brochure.
At the time I thought, how do I explain this to Jonathan (then 16) that he’d just appeared larger than life in one of the most visited, iconic places in America. He lived in a mud and thatch rondavel near Nyamata – best known for a horrific church massacre during the 1994 genocide. Nyamata had a population of 64,000 before the genocide and 2,000 afterwards.
I met Jonathan during our first Lifeline radio distribution in Rwanda in 2003. He eagerly sat in the front row of a group of 50 children selected by our local partner to receive our solar and wind-up radios in an information initiative for destitute child-headed families. He looked so young and caught my attention right away. I couldn’t believe that he satisfied our 12-year-old age requirement. Our partner assured me that Jonathan was 13. I suggested that we drive him home so I could verify this for myself.
After bumping around for 20 minutes on a rutted dirt track, we pulled up to his one-roomed round house with black goats tied to a post. Four small children appeared, including a baby in a pink dress. This youngster was the head-of-his-household and responsible for raising his siblings all on his own.
During the 1994 genocide his family walked for three months to refugee camps near Goma in the Congo where they lived for a couple of years before walking back again. His mother passed away while giving birth to baby Arissa, and his father died shortly thereafter of malaria in 2002.
Many times in the past 17 years I’ve wrestled as to what extent I can or should become involved with child that touches me. I’m sure many who work in development grapple with this. It’s a decision that has to be carefully considered – not just for child protection reasons, but also as to not unfairly raise the hopes of children that have so little and for whom your attention means so much. My belief is that if you start a relationship you have to be realistic about the level of involvement you can maintain and you must work through local experts. You can’t build up hope or expectations of a child and then not be able to fulfil them.
Always accompanied by our local partner and often with a local government official, I have visited Jonathan many times over the years. I learned that Arissa was actually a boy. The next eldest was a girl and until the age of three, he wore her clothes. In 2007 their house collapsed and a friend in Ireland raised funds and built the family a four-roomed cement house.
In our personal capacity, my husband and I have helped Jonathan and his family with a range of necessities. I’ve had to be mindful that providing too much could create jealousy with other child families who didn’t have a ‘muzungu’ (white person) helping them.
While still in high school, at the age of 20, Jonathan began emailing me. Not only was his English limited (as was my Kinyarwanda), he also hadn’t discovered how to use the space bar. His barely decipherable emails were one gigantic word and always ended in “congratulations”.
At the age of 22, despite all the odds, Jonathan graduated from high school. The only thing he has ever asked from me was to help him with his education. As a start, we sent him to the British Council in Kigali to improve his English. He finished first in his class.
All dressed up in his church clothes – a shirt and tie, black trousers, light brown shoes and white socks – we met with the admissions officer of Rwanda’s only tourism school. He’s enrolled in a two-year diploma course in food and beverage management and will graduate in December 2016. After the meeting, I took him to a restaurant for lunch, his second time ever. As we walked out, he opened up his hand and said, “you forgot this on the table.” It was the tip.
I feel intensely proud of this ever-enthusiastic and conscientious young man whose childhood passed him by. He still remembers the horrors of the genocide, lost his parents within a year of one another, and was left to raise four younger siblings with little outside support. To earn money over the years he’s grown food to sell, looked after other people’s goats and dug in neighbour’s gardens. He told me “it is important for me to get an education, to learn English perfectly and to find a good job in food and beverage management. Then I can make sure that all my siblings will get an education.” Ensuring they have a better future is his main aim.
Who knows, maybe some day Jonathan will go to Times Square himself, look up and see that electronic billboard he graced all those years ago.
By Kristine Pearson in Kigali, Rwanda