Today is why I do my life’s work. A colleague, and I spent the day in Bugasera, Rwanda in an area where prior to the genocide, the population was 64,000, afterwards 2,000. We spoke with 30 (50/50 female/male) child heads of households who had received our Lifeline radios 6 months ago in collaboration with local NGO, Trust and Care. Between the ages of 12 and 20, they had walked up to three hours to come and as always, I learned more than I thought I would and it never gets any easier.

All live at the hard edge of grinding poverty. As heads of their families, they’ve sacrificed an education to enable their younger brothers and sisters to attend school. The government’s ambitious programme to get youngsters into school and to learn English means more students in primary school than the system can cope with. Learners attend either the morning or afternoon classes.

Rwanda aims to join the Commonwealth and about 85% of the population speaks only Kinyarwanda. A significant number of teachers were killed in the genocide and it has taken years to rebuild classrooms and basic teaching capacity and few teachers speak English themselves.

When I first visited Bugasera in 1999, there were pockets of ‘feral’ children – hundreds of child-only families living in round mud and thatch houses. Children wore rags showing their distended stomachs, trying to eke out an existence by subsistence farming with little or no adult guidance. Water had to be collected from a swampy area at the bottom of the hill an hour’s walk away. It was impossible to imagine that children would have to live like this. Understandably, they seldom smiled or laughed.

The dirt road was so pockmarked from Kigali that we rarely got out of first gear and it could take over two hours to reach this area. Now it’s a smooth 45 minutes as there’s a fine highway linking Kigali to the bustling market town of Nyamata (and onto Bujumbura) and the road to the meeting place we were in has been gravel paved with concrete gutters.  I saw small shops selling basics on rural back roads and there are more bicycles and bicycle taxis.  The rickety mud brick thatch traditional homes are slowly being replaced with rectangular two and four room houses with tin roofs under new government regulations.  Most had pit latrines nearby. Despite visible progress, these orphans remain abjectly poor and the complex factors of poverty reinforce each other.

Chantal drawing water, Bugasera, Rwanda.

Chantal in her school uniform drawing water, Bugasera, Rwanda.

Rwanda has the strictest environmental laws on the continent, but there are markedly fewer trees and greater soil erosion than 10 years ago.  Although, there is now a water pipe,  the children say they become sick unless they boil the water, using wood and creating further deforestation. Girls said they still fetch water up to 3 times a day. The rains have been poor and hungry, and malnutrition remains a serious problem.

What We Wanted to Find Out

We asked a series of questions to only girls and only boys and then together. We wanted to learn about what they listen to, what they’ve learned or do differently since having the radio, what they do for lighting and after dark, what is important to them and how they see their future.

Not one person owned a radio previously and none have a cell phone or had even made a phone call. They said they got their information from neighbours and word of mouth. To sum up their comments, all said that they listen to ‘amakuru’ – the news.  They want to know what is going on not just in Rwanda, but they’re curious about what is happening in frontier states and beyond. Girls cited programmes about health, AIDS, abuse, and women and children’s rights as most important. Betty, 20, said that “they were learning from the radio that it was not acceptable to abuse girls and women and that they now had laws to protect them”. Before she had her radio, she didn’t know this. Given the rates of rape during the genocide and in the refugee camps, her comment is not surprising. Boys also said that they want to listen to sports, to follow the national and international soccer teams and they liked agricultural and livestock programmes, citing Imbera Heza, a radio programme that Lifeline Energy funds on Radio Salus.

Girls Foucs Group with Lifeline radio

Girls Foucs Group with Lifeline radio

We asked the focus groups if had Rf 2000 (about $30) what would be the three things they would buy? I heard something that I never heard before – bottled water, which costs about 50c for a small bottle.  Food was mentioned and thirdly, kerosene.

The group had a lively discussion about lighting and all the problems it causes.  Several said that from firewood, candles, kerosene tin can lamps called ‘italas’, they had lost their belongings to fire. They are particularly worried about their sisters and brothers having to study with kerosene because of the harm it does to the eyes and lungs.

We then asked if they had a clean and safe lighting source how would their lives be different. Nearly everyone raised their hand – “I would go to the toilet at night”; “I could see when I eat to make sure there are no bugs in my food”; “I would not have as much stress worrying about accidents and fires”; “I could cook in the dark.”

I then demonstrated the Lifelight and spontaneous applause broke out.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough to give to everyone, so we visited several homes after wards and distributed them privately.

Hope – It’s Breaking Out All Over

We ended by talking about the future and again, I heard something that I’ve never heard so emphatically before – they have a sense of hope – mainly from listening to President Kagame on the radio. They felt strongly that he had brought peace and stability to Rwanda and with that had comes development. They felt that before they had no future but now believe that he will lead them to a better one. They gave him credit for everything good that has happened to Rwanda.