22 November 2017

Rwanda: Inside Gitagata Rehabilitation Centre

opinion

It's around the break of the day when this reporter arrives at Gitagata Rehabilitation Centre, a children facility in Bugesera District. A security guard is on hand to welcome a visitor.

From the entrance, children of different age groups in black-and-blue uniform are engrossed in chores. Some are working in the gardens, others washing utensils while the very little ones can be seen playing.

Old buildings occupy a large compound, while there are also tree gardens as well as vegetable fields and fruits inside the centre.

Located in Gitagata Village, Nyagihunika Cell in Musenyi Sector, Gitagata Rehabilitation Centre is home to hundreds of young males, all under 18. The majority of them are former delinquents.

The centre hosts 370 boys aged between five to 18.

Seven months ago, Jacques Muhawenayo, 17, found himself at the centre after he was picked up from a street in Kigali by Police.

He said he ran away from home in Kamonyi District in 2014 after stealing a bicycle from his drunken father.

"An older relative came home and advised me to steal a bicycle then we can run to Kigali. My parents didn't take care of me. I was 13. Once in Kigali, the relative would go to 'hunt '(steal) and I remained home cooking and doing other domestic chores," he said.

One day, Police took his relative to Kigali Rehabilitation Centre and at the end of the month, he couldn't pay rent. The landlord evicted Muhawenayo, effectively sending him to the street.

"I survived on odd jobs, carrying people's luggage. I could eat food from dustbins. I slept in shrubs or under bridges. During rainy seasons, we endured the cold, we had no choice," he said.

Muhawenayo and other street children used to smoke or take narcotics drugs to survive through the harsh conditions, he said.

Despite the suffering, the idea of returning home was the last thing he had on his mind.

"One day, I fell sick from malaria and I was sleeping under the Nyabugogo bridge. No one knew that I was there except one kid we used to sleep together. He had no money to help me buy medicine. He only went out to beg for help at a nearby pharmacy after seeing my situation deteriorate. It was then that a woman bought me coartem tablets," he recalled.

Eventually, he was picked up by Police around Nyabugogo, taken to Kigali Rehabilitation Centre, and ended up in Gitagata.

When he arrived at the centre, Muhawenimana was enrolled in Primary Four, where he had stopped.

He is now determined to study like never before.

"I want to become a teacher and I know it's possible with determination. I've learnt that I don't have to be given everything I need to stay home or go to school. I have dreams and I'm going to work towards them," said Muhawenimana, adding that he is ready to return to his family.

Getting to the centre

Josephine Uwajeneza, the coordinator of Gitagata Rehabilitation Centre, said the children at the centre are in most cases rounded off the streets of different urban centres by the Police.

The centre, which also takes in other young boys who find themselves on the wrong side of the law but are too young to be prosecuted, is run under the National Rehabilitation Service.

"When they arrive here, we first investigate every child's background since they hail from different parts of the country. It requires close scrutiny because many of them are used to lying and they don't want to disclose their real identities for fear of being taken back," she said.

The next step is induction, to show them that it is possible for someone to leave the streets and lead a normal life.

"In the first week, the children want to be on their own-the kind of life lived on the streets, some are even violent. It's our job to show them that any society has rules to follow," Uwajeneza said.

Furthermore, a timetable is drawn for them that details what to do and at what time.

"We give them basic needs like clothes, food and medical care for some who are sick, then thereafter counselling starts," Uwajeneza said.

Rehabilitation process

Christine Uwamahoro, one of the five psychologists working with the centre, said they chat with the children every day in groups and on individual basis in order to know the reasons why they fled their homes.

"In two weeks they simultaneously start school and therapy. There are some sessions that are done in groups and others which are done on individual basis," she said.

With time, some children change while others don't, which determines the time they spend at the centre, said Uwamahoro.

Normally, children spend three to six months there but sometimes they can stay longer depending on how children responded to the therapies, she said.

She said they monitor children's everyday life, observing everything they do.

"Some children have personality troubles, others are depressed; we heal them through counseling. We then ensure continuous monitoring to see if there is any physical, mental or psychological change on every child living at the centre," Uwamahoro said.

Some return

Uwajeneza said they have cases of children who pass through the centre more than once.

Out of 40 children taken to the centre, at least three return for the second time.

"It's because when they are reintegrated into their families, they meet the same situation like before and return to streets," she said.

Jean Claude Uwayezu, a psychologist, said some children even don't want to go back to their families because of the problems they left there.

"We also have cases of children who escape from the centre when they hear of plans to return them to their families," said Uwayezu.

For instance, within the past two weeks, seven children fled the centre, only one has been traced so far, he said.

While local leaders are supposed to follow up on children who leave rehabilitation centres, Uwamahoro wondered whether they are doing their job.

Common causes

Almost all the children at Gitagata Rehabilitation Centre have some common reasons which pushed them to leave their families to run to the streets, according to Uwamahoro.

"Most of them tell us they left because of domestic violence in their homes, separation of their parents, mistreatment by step parents, polygamy, alcoholism and poverty," she said.

However, the main cause remains negligence, Uwamahoro said.

"If a child is well brought up, his option would not be to run to the street even when his parents are poor. This is a result of poor parenting," said Uwamahoro.

Uwajeneza said some parents call and beg her to take their children to the centre for rehabilitation but "it's not how it works."

"For example, one day a man working for a major public institution called and asked me to bring his son to the centre because he was misbehaving. His mother also works for another major institution far away, none of them lives at home. They return home only on weekends... who is to blame, a child or his parents?" she asked.

Uwamahoro appealed to parents to find time for their children, adding that parenting is not only about means, but also about dedicating time and care to their children.

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