4 December 2012

Rwanda: 13-Year Old Girl Quits the Street to Start a New Life

Huye — When she was 11, her friend convinced her that moving to Kigali would lead them to greener pastures and open a door to improved living conditions.

And, convinced, Nikuze Mukanoheli, now 13, and her friend, who happened to be older than her, left their village in the rural Bugesera district, Eastern Province and boarded a bus en route to Kigali, with a lot of anticipation.

But, on that day, little did the young girl know about what awaited her at the end of their journey.

As the duo settled in Kigali, Nikuze immediately realised that the promises she received were fake and that her decision to escape from her parents was a bad one.

"When we arrived in Kigali, we had nowhere to go. So, we sleep on the street that night," Nikuze remembers with sadness.

"I was of course worried but I could not do anything. When I asked the girl [who brought me], she told me that it was our new life and that we must adapt".

Nikuze's story started about a year and half ago, when she dropped out of school (she was in Primary two) and travelled to Kigali expecting an easy and better life.

As soon as she reached the city, her friend took her to Nyamirambo, one of Kigali's popular suburbs.

"There are relatives in Kigali but I could not go to them because I would not get a reason to explain my dropping out of school. I feared they would immediately call back home and tell my mother that I was around. I feared my mother would punish me."

"I was not a good kid with my mother, even when I was still home," Nikuze confesses.

And, eventually, as she chose to remain on streets, her life moved from worse to worst.

"We ate by scavenging food from waste bins," she remembers. Other times, they stole clothes from the market and later sold them to get money.

Within a year she spent on the Nyamirambo streets, she had gone through misfortunes to the epitome of destitution.

"Life was very hard. I smoked and took marijuana to cope with it," she says regretfully.

"I lived with two other young girls. We spent our nights under gutters or in abandoned houses."

Fortunately for her, the teenager was netted in a police swoop and she found herself in a rehabilitation centre in Butare, Huye district.

Almost five months down the road, Nikuze is a new and changed child.

"I regret what I did. I will never go back to where I came from," she says, tears dropping from her eyes.

"I lost a lot of opportunities. I want to focus on my studies and move to build a bright future for myself and my family," the young girl, who expects to go back to school next January, says with determination.

Nikuze is one of the 82 young girls who are currently living at the Nyampinga Girls' Centre, an institution which provides care mainly to former street kids.

This centre is exclusively dedicated to young girls of between 10 and 14 years, according to its coordinator, Justin Karabaranga.

"Girls are either brought here by the police or local leaders," Karabaranga says. "We do also recuperate others from the streets and convince them to join us."

"After admitting them here, our psychologists help them reintegrate into the society. We also enrol them in school to pursue education."

And, as time goes by, efforts are made to re-unite the children with their families. While some are put into foster families, for those with no family, according to Karabaranga.

Back to the streets

However, taking care of a former street kid is not as easy a task as anyone could think. It goes with a lot of challenges, Karabaranga notes.

"While on street, these kids are exposed to all sorts of immoral acts. They take alcohol, smoke, take marijuana and some of them engage in prostitution. So it is hard to change those behaviours," Karabaranga says.

"But we do our best to help them and transform their lives and it is clear that many of them are changing," she explains.

However, despite their efforts, some children do still escape from the centre and go back to the streets.

It is estimated that about 10 per cent of the children at the centre run away after a certain time and return to the streets.

And, the reason behind this is seen by the escapees and those who manage the centre differently.

For the centre's management-and for the children still living there-the escape is dictated by the bad manners that the children have acquired while on streets.

"Some of these children have lived a long time on streets that they think life off the the street is not possible," Karabaranga observes.

"They want to have the little coins they were used to and want to do all they want as they did on street. They want to smoke, engage in drug abuse or other bad behaviours; and when you try to correct them and show them the best way to go, they think you are against them."

"In such a situation, the first thing they do is to escape and go back to the streets", he says.

But, for those who run away from the centre their version is totally different.

They mention mistreatment and lack of access to basic necessities, among the reasons they have decided to pack up and return to the streets.

The new Times interviewed two of the kids who had run away from Nyampinga centre.

They were aboard a bus en route to Kigali where they said they would return to live as street children.

One of the teenagers, who had spent two nights roaming in Huye town, claimed she had been "mistreated".

When asked what kind of mistreatment she faced, the young girl, who asked not to be named, claimed to have been "insulted many times" by their superiors.

"Totally false," responds the centre's head. "They just come up with such accusations when they want to escape. They want just to create the impression that life within a centre like this one is impossible and justify why they went back to the streets."

The argument seems to be corroborated by the assertions of other children at the centre.

"Life here is better than that on the street," Nikuze remarks." I cannot leave this place," she says.

Francoise Uwimana, 12, another girl-child living at Nyampinga centre says: "Life is very fine. They give us clothes, feed us and educate us. They are always providing advice on how to better our life and I think it is helpful to us".

"Those who are running away have their own selfish reasons", the little girl concludes.

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