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Wednesday, April 16, 2008 02:20 pm

Saving Rwanda’s orphans, one entrepreneur at a time

“Giving Hope” encourages youngsters to dream, then get to work

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Untitled Document Rwanda is known as a place of death, but I wish that everyone could see the life in the faces of some of its orphans. It was 14 years ago this month that the slaughter began. By the time it was over, 100 days later, some 800,000 people had been killed in an effort by the majority Hutus to eliminate the minority Tutsis from the face of the earth. Some of the orphans we met two weeks ago were 5 or 6 when their parents were killed in the genocide. Now young adults, they’re starting small businesses to support themselves and their siblings, and some are even taking in other young orphans to give them a chance, too. We met Beata, 23, inside her clothing store in the small town of Gitarama, about an hour west of Kigali, the capital. Men’s shirts are on display behind the counter, and colorful fabrics for women’s dresses line the walls. She lives with two brothers and a sister; both of their parents have died. She had dropped out of school to take care of her family when she heard about a program offered by the Rwanda YWCA that encourages young people to pursue their dreams. Through the program, she enrolled in vocational training in tailoring and also received training for microbusiness planning and management. Her tailor shop grew into a clothing store, which has done well enough to pay school fees and other expenses for her siblings. She’s reinvesting some of her profits to grow the business, and now she goes on buying trips to Tanzania and Uganda. Our group of eight admiring Americans bought enough scarves and fabric from her to make her day. Her story made ours. The YWCA program is called “Giving Hope.” Some of the children who join it had never thought much about a better life until they were required to draw pictures of what they don’t like, what makes them sad, what makes them happy, and what they dream for the future. In our visits to hear success stories, each one brought out his or her original drawing as though it were a personal Declaration of Independence. Martin, 24, showed us his drawing of a cow and a banana tree, his dream. An orphan since the genocide, he signed up for the Giving Hope program thinking that he was going to get another handout. Instead, he learned how to make greeting cards from banana leaves. He sold enough cards to buy three goats. After a year he had 17 goats, then sold them and bought a cow. Now, after three years, he owns three cows and a small banana plantation while continuing to make greeting cards. He helps support three siblings, plus the two young orphans he’s taken in. We asked Martin whether he plans to get married. He grinned. Maybe after he gets his family raised, he told us. When young people make money in their own businesses, they catch a spirit that rarely visits someone with a job and a boss. We met Jovith, a 22-year-old who now runs his own welding shop; Olive, 16, who sells sugarcane; and Felicité, 22, who mills cassava flour to sell. Giving Hope reaches about 14,000 children, a small segment of Rwanda’s estimated 1 million orphans, but the model works so well that it has spread to neighboring Kenya. There, in a village that doesn’t have electricity, we heard from more young entrepreneurs — a barber, a furniture-maker, and a general-store manager. My favorite was a kid who had hooked up a VCR and a TV set to a generator to show kung fu movies (with Swahili subtitles) to a full house of paying customers every evening. He’s now the richest man in town.
Would this work in Springfield? As I traveled through the villages of Africa, I kept wondering how we could bring something like this to our neighborhoods, where too many youths have too little to do. Could the entrepreneurial spirit that goes into selling drugs be funneled into legitimate businesses? Could we organize youngsters here to grow vegetables and sell them at farmers’ markets? Start a lawn-mowing business, a used-book store, a dress shop? What works in a poor country might not work in a rich one, but Giving Hope gives me hope. One thing we learned in Africa: Hope is contagious.

Fletcher Farrar traveled to Africa March 24-April 5 with a delegation representing Church World Service, which provides funding for the Giving Hope program in Rwanda and Kenya.

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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