Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dig Deeper

It was almost three years ago to the day that I made my first visit to Les Enfants de Dieu and to Rwanda. I was fascinated by the peacefulness of the country and my first impression of the center was amazement, as I talked with the boys in broken English. They were full of life and interested in our small group of muzungus. It was explained that the boys ran the center through a ministry system. They had the power to decide on the budget and even fire the staff. To me, the concept was brilliant and seeing the boys take ownership of it all made me eager to return to Rwanda to work at Les Enfants de Dieu.

During my first few months in Rwanda, I felt that everything was perfect. I loved going to the center every day to play with the boys. The classes I taught were enjoyable, and I loved discovering the rest of the country on weekends. But as I began to settle into day-to-day life and started to see reality, my perception of things became more clouded. Rwanda is often painted as a pretty picture, an example for other war-torn countries to follow, but that is far from the truth. I soon found that the conclusions I had drawn in 2009 were missing pieces; pieces that could not be gathered by a silly high school girl on a mere three week trip. It turns out that when you scratch the surface, you’ll find that Rwanda’s scars still run deep.

So, what does this have to do with the center? My friend Faraz (overseer of the center) made an excellent point when he said that Les Enfants de Dieu is a microcosm of Rwanda. All you need to do is some digging to find the truth behind it all. I mentioned in my pervious post that the past few weeks have been stressful. This is partly because I have found that the ministry system that made Les Enfants de Dieu run so smoothly has fallen apart. In the past months I have watched boys fall through the cracks because someone was not doing their job. At first, I felt helpless. I had boys come to me with problems that a psychologist or social worker should deal with. This helplessness turned into frustration and soon to anger.

As a volunteer who has been in Rwanda for 5 months now, it’s impossible for me to separate myself from work when I go home. The cogs in my head are constantly turning, trying to figure out solutions to the constant problems the center faces: How can we get more donors to pay the boys’ school fees? How can we best organize the new library? What donations do we need the most? I cannot simply turn a switch and forget about it because these boys have become my life. They are my students, my friends, and my brothers and we have a mutual understanding that we will do the best we can for one another. There are nights when I’ve cried myself to sleep thinking about one boy or another because of the stories they’ve told me.

As you can see, I’ve grown attached. It’s impossible not to once you realize just how special these boys really are. The boys at Les Enfants de Dieu have taught me that children are truly resilient and when given the chance, they can rise to the occasion and take on the responsibility of any adult. So when these boys are hurting or when something is not right at the center, my protective instincts kick in.

If I were to tell this story in its entirety, this blog post would be a mile long. Essentially what happened was Ally and I called for back up. Faraz, overseer of the center, lives in Kenya and tries to visit the center once a month. During one of his monthly visits, we shared some concerns we had about the center. A week later, we witnessed a staff member beating one of the boys with a stick repeatedly. Despite the fact that this type of treatment is common in Rwanda, it’s not okay with me that it’s happening at the center. After a heated exchange with the staff member, Ally and I decided we should contact Faraz.

As soon as I emailed him, he flew to Rwanda to deal with the list of issues we were concerned about. The number one priority was to restore the once functioning ministry system and give the boys their power back. We believed this would help solve many of the other problems. Our weekend was a whirlwind of meetings with Faraz, the ministers, and Rafiki in an effort to try and get the center back on track.

As we entered the center on Monday morning, I could feel the weight lifting off my shoulders. I watched the Minister of Administration strut across the yard up to the offices, documents underneath his arm and a newly acquired bounce of purpose in his step. An hour later, we had our class and the boys were the most enthusiastic and well behaved as I’ve seen them in awhile. It’s probably a comforting thought that punishments can no longer be given by adults, but must be decided upon and implemented by the ministers. EDD is well on its way to maintain its reputation as being the best center for street boys in all of Rwanda. The center will continue to set the bar and be a progressive example for others to follow.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned during my stay in Rwanda is the importance of digging to find the truth. This country is complex and nothing is as it seems at first glance. Just like you must spend time with another to truly know them, you must also spend time in a place to truly understand it. Had I not been here for 5 months, I might not have realized that the center was going in the wrong direction. Had I not taken the time to develop meaningful relationships with the boys, they might not have felt comfortable sharing their problems. There were moments when I felt helpless, but as it turns out they were not worthless. If there is one thing I’m proud of, it is the fact that I took the time to listen and to understand the boys, the center, and Rwanda. I wont pretend I understand any of them fully, but it’s a start.


Elena's Mom said...

My Dear Elena - you persevered, stuck your neck out and did the right thing! As a result the boys at EDD will enjoy a more joyful childhood experience! Be proud of what you have accomplished - I am!!

Elena said...

Thanks Mom! :)

Claire said...

I am proud of all you and Ally have done, you're giving the boys there power back and I don't think there is anything more valuable than that! I left feeling like there was more I should have done but I know that all those boys whom I love so much are in great hands. Keep on keeping on!

Sabrina said...

You give me chills and leave me speechless. I only hope that I can live to be half the volunteer here as you've proven yourself to be. Thank you for being my inspiration and role model. Love you baby gem.

Liz said...

Elena, You have much to be proud of. You are a true friend to those boys and they know it. I admire your strength and courage. What a wonderful example you are showing these boys.

Fr. Bernie Bourgeois said...

Dear Elena: I agree with your mom's statement above that you persevered and now have turned the place around. You have learned an important life lesson in that things aren't always as they appear at first. You're right; keep digging! Take care, Elena, know of my thoughts and prayers.

Kate Laddison said...

Amazing story, Elena. Keep on diggin!