Children of hope. The phrase might evoke images in your mind. Perhaps the children of hope are young athletes identified as future Olympians. Alternatively, they could be intellectual prodigies enrolled in special education programs at private schools. We might think of the sons and daughters of privileged families. They carry the burden of their parents’ hopes, dreams and drive for achievement. The common factor of these three descriptions is the exceptional nature of the children and the support they receive to fulfill their dreams.
Canadian Baptists participated with a very different social group known as Children of Hope. Initially, we used the term “orphans and vulnerable children (OVC)” in Rwanda to identify them. Over a period of eight years, our project worked with almost 2,000 children and adolescents in three regions of thecountry. They lived in conditions of extreme poverty and social isolation. Two years into the program, the participants chose the name “Children of Hope”. They encouraged us to adopt this name because they were convinced that God had given them capacities to live full and meaningful lives.
How did we get there? The story is one of God’s spirit working through churches and leaders in Rwanda and Canada. It is a wonderful story of hope which we feel privileged to have witnessed.
In 2003, we were members of a short-term mission team to Rwanda along with several other people from Vancouver, Saskatoon, Toronto and St. John’s.
Our group met Pastor Jonas Biklimanao in a small church outside of the capital city of Kigali. The area was notable for its extreme poverty and lack of basic services. We had been invited to a mid-week worship service for 150 people living with HIV/AIDS. Our group was overwhelmed by the compassion and faith of people living under a death sentence (before the introduction of modern anti-retroviral medicines). After the service, Jonas took us to visit child-led households. He knew the children, the places where they lived, and their desperation.
A child-headed household is a family unit composed of children (generally siblings). In most cases the eldest child assumed the role of leadership in the family. In Rwanda, the combined evils of the genocide against the Tutsi and the AIDS pandemic had resulted in the death of so many adults in the prime of life. When we visited in 2003, it was estimated that there were 250,000 orphans and 60,000 child-led households in Rwanda. It was impossible to build and manage enough orphanages. Furthermore, we learned that many African church leaders had reservations about orphanages as western institutions that separated children from their communities. However, the massive number of orphans in Rwanda had overwhelmed traditional response mechanisms of families and communities. Left on their own, childheaded households faced issues of grief, isolation, vulnerability, abuse, under-nutrition, lack of education and extreme poverty.
We carry memories of the children we visited. They struggled to simply eat. School was out of the question for most. They spent their days carrying water for neighbours and working as day labourers. Childheaded households were defenceless against the predatory actions of relatives and neighbours who took advantage of their lack of adult protection. Some households had been forced to sell the tin sheets from their roofs so that they could have food to eat. A family of four sisters told us that their only happiness was to cast their burdens on the Lord. A sister and brother shared that they lay awake at night listening for noises outside their home.
Members of our group returned to Canada with broken hearts. We held the hope that we could do something meaningful and compassionate to offer support to these children. We prayed to God asking for a way forward that would be more than tokenism and “feel good” charity. Over the next three years, we returned separately to Rwanda along with representatives of other Canadian Baptist churches. These trips strengthened the conviction that God required actions of justice, mercy and faith. Bob’s church, West Vancouver Baptist, and Emmanuel Baptist in Saskatoon became the first congregations to join CBM’s STEP program in 2004 with partnerships in Rwanda. Both churches expressed the desire for involvement in a response to the needs of child-led households.
BEGINNING OF HOPE
Our hope to come alongside child-led households faced significant barriers of distance, language, cultural differences, budget challenges and the limitations of our Rwandan denominational church partner. We were aware that the developing world is littered with a paternalistic legacy of projects started and abandoned by Westerners. We did not want to raise false hope.
The answer to the desperate prayers of people sometimes begins with the unexpected call of a person who steps out to serve God in a new way. Laura Ward was a Master Degree student in public health in Scotland in 2006. She approached CBM about doing field research in Africa to complete her degree. Laura embraced the call to work with child-led households in Rwanda.
Laura and her Rwandan colleagues followed the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child in giving children the right to express their opinions and to tell their stories. Her qualitative research methodologies facilitated the perspectives of different groupings based on age, gender and circumstances. A total of 104 children participated through group play and arts-based research activities, individual interviews and household visits.
The research findings were sobering. Members of child-led households faced daunting challenges including extreme poverty, shelter, nutrition, health care, isolation, gender-based abuse, exploitation, lack of educational opportunities and fear of the future. Yet there was an amazing resiliency in the children who had been forced to care for each other in difficult circumstances.
If you go two days without food and the young ones are all crying, could you say “No” to a man who gives you 200 Rwandan francs (forty cents)? I am not proud of it; I hate it. But what else can I do? ~ Claudine, 19-year-old female, head of household. 2006.
HOPE TAKES ROOT
Laura Ward’s ground-breaking research was published in a peer reviewed journal. After graduation, she once again sensed God’s call to return to Rwanda to move from research to project design. She worked with a Rwandan team including Andre Sibomana, Michel Nsengiyumva, Pastor Jonas and Rev. Gato Munyamasoko. They began a new round of discussions with children, community members, local authorities and Baptist leaders in order to establish a more comprehensive baseline for the project. The proposal that emerged was limited in its geographical concentration, but ambitious in its proposed outcomes. It included child-headed households and other vulnerable children in communities.
The project planners proposed that Canadian Baptists work in three regions through a community-based and household approach with an emphasis on:
- School fees for primary and secondary students. Vocational training for older youth.
- The selection of adult mentors by each household. They would be trained and supervised.
- Enrollment of project participants in the national health plan so that they could access medical care.
- Provision of spiritual and psychosocial support.
- A response to the most urgent needs of adequate shelter.
- Training of older youth to participate in savings and loan groups.
We felt a strong sense of hope as the project design took shape. However, the issue of funding was critical and urgent. The STEP churches took up the challenge. By the fall of 2006, West Vancouver Baptist Church and Emmanuel Baptist Church had committed substantial support to provide a foundation for the project. There was confidence that it could move forward.
PROGRAM LAUNCH AND DEVELOPMENT
The Children of Hope program functioned between 2007 and 2015 in three areas of Rwanda – Kigali Rural, Kibungo and Butare. Over this period of eight years almost 2,000 children and youth were direct beneficiaries. The project was a mustard seed that grew into a tree. Other NGOs adopted the model and utilized it in different regions of the country. Project staff were invited to consult with agencies of the Rwandan government. Local congregations in the three program areas experienced significant growth. People commented that these congregations were transforming their communities.
There were many challenges during this eight-year period. Hope was put to the test by dramatic increases in costs of education and health insurance. Budgets had to be revised at mid-year to cope with unexpected expenses. Crop failures and spikes in food prices required special assistance. Vocational training along with savings and loan groups became increasingly important in helping households reach a level of sustainability. Legal action was required to protect abused children. The problem of adequate housing never went away. In retrospect, we realize that we underestimated the trauma and emotional wounds that required healing. There was always the feeling that we could have done more.
The work that was accomplished was based on God’s grace. A network of adult mentors visited each household weekly to provide support and encouragement. Though never paid for their sacrificial services, the mentors were committed to their role and formed an important and enduring support network for the young families. Local community volunteers made bricks and participated in repairing homes. There were many other organizations and individuals who significantly contributed to the development of the Children of Hope program. We look back and celebrate that many of these children grew up to become university graduates, small business owners, veterinarians, teachers and police officers.
Most are active Christians involved in local churches. But every good development project must come to an end. It is difficult to leave people with whom you have worked and built relationships. This project had involved around 2,000 Children of Hope, adult mentors, local Baptist congregations, communities, and government officials. The Children of Hope program staff members, led by Esperance Niyigena, worked on an exit strategy over a three-year period. In 2016 the project moved to three new locations in Rwanda.
We praise God for taking the hopes and dreams of many people and fashioning them into a meaningful witness to his rule. We leave the last words to a young woman named Rachel. She had been the eldest child of a child-headed household in Kigali Rural. She learned to be a tailor, fashion designer and sewing machine mechanic through the program. She was grateful to West Vancouver Baptist for providing her with a sewing machine. Within a few years, Rachel became a mentor to other households. She shared her story with a group of Canadians and closed with the following words: “Do not feel sorry for us. We arebchildren of hope.”
Gord King recently retired from his role as CBM’s Resource Specialist and continues to teach and write.
Bob Bahri was the Lead Pastor of West Vancouver Baptist Church for seven years, a position he retired from in 2008. He is now serving as their Pastoral Care Coordinator.