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Children forced to grow up fast in Rwanda’s parentless households

© UNICEF Rwanda/2006/Tarneden
Manessé, 12, picks up his sister Mukandayisenga, 8, from school in the village of Kageyo in western Rwanda. They live in a hut with two older siblings but their parents are dead.

By Rudi Tarneden

GISENY, Rwanda, 21 February 2006 - Between head-high banana plants, a narrow path leads up a steep hill. Manessé leads the way slowly. His movements and his strong physique make him look older than his 12 years. Manessé is still a child but he is obliged to lead the life of an adult.

He has just collected his sister Mukandayisenga, 8, from Kigeyo Primary School near Giseny in western Rwanda. Manessé and his two siblings, sister Niyiramana, 17, and Emanuel, 23, are bringing up Mukandayisenga between them. Both parents are dead.

Their home is a dilapidated mud hut on a tiny piece of land near the village. Emanuel and Manessé grow potatoes and other vegetables there but at an altitude of 2,000 metres the soil does not produce enough to feed the four children.

"I never know if we will have enough to eat," says Emanuel. Now and then he earns a few francs in the kitchen of a priest’s house nearby but it is nowhere near enough. He cannot find better work because he has never been to school and cannot read or write.

Emanuel hopes that at least the youngest of the family will be able to complete her schooling. Manessé has given up school twice and Niyiramana only managed three years of irregular attendance.

The siblings are outsiders in Kigeyo and get little support from the neighbours. Since the genocide of 1994, most people in the area are battling for their own survival.

"No one helps us if one of us gets ill," says Emanuel.

UNICEF estimates Rwanda has about 40,000 child-only households comprised of more than 100,000 children.

© UNICEF Rwanda/2006/Tarneden
Construction workers prepare the foundations for new school buildings in the village of Kageyo in western Rwanda.

UNICEF and partners provide help

It has recently commissioned an NGO to look for local families willing to support children living alone. The sponsor families ensure the children have enough to eat, attend school and receive medical help as well as small loans. The sponsors make sure defenceless child-only households are not attacked.

UNICEF also supports schools and youth activities. It promotes youth clubs where young people help each other with projects like supplying needy households with vegetables from the school gardens. Children who dropped out of school can now attend new special needs classes at many schools to learn reading, writing, arithmetic and manual skills.

With the help of donations from the Schools for Africa campaign, a new school building is being built in Kigeyo, with a training centre for teachers from other schools in the area. Plans call for 50 such model schools of which 18 are complete or under construction.

Until recently, eight-year-old Mukandayisenga had never been inside a school. She enjoys at last being able to study. But after her lessons she has to go back to the business of survival.

"When I come out of school, I help my sister to fetch water and wood. Then I wash and clean the vegetables," says Mukandayisenga. "That's all I can do."



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