A teen orphaned by the Rwandan genocide makes the heartbreaking choice to abandon her own children. Years later, an unshakable brotherly bond keeps her bruised but determined boys looking toward the future—and sends them back to her under questionable circumstances.
Hirwa never should have given the phone to Jean-Cloude. His brother might be ten now and almost as strong as Hirwa himself, but Jean-Cloude breaks everything. Now he’s dropped the phone in the water and Hirwa can’t detach his eyes from the broken Tecno. This is all beyond repair. And they’ve only just arrived.
A week ago the boys were still dreaming of being reunited with their mother. From their orphanage perched on the hill, the brothers gazed wistfully at other children being collected by their families. But no one had come for them yet. Jean-Cloude had wet his bed again. He had to sleep on the floor and Hirwa crawled beside him.
Then one afternoon she suddenly came. She wore a black dress and she laughed with her hand over her mouth. Jean-Cloude beamed, but thirteen-year-old Hirwa saw how worried she looked.
Early the next morning they left the orphanage with their mother.
It was already getting dark when they reached Kigali, the capital. Hirwa saw lights everywhere, along with cars, motorcycles, high buildings, billboards, and so many people. From the bus stop, they walked up a wide dirt road, past a Primus beer sign, into an alley. They passed through a corrugated gate. Hirwa saw a large house with two black doors; his mother’s hut was opposite the house. It had no windows. There was a bed and on the little strip of floor in front of the bed he saw bottles of nail polish, Vaseline and a tube of Colgate. A light bulb dangled from the ceiling.
Now that they are here, she leaves her phone with them in the evening, while she goes to work at the bar. Sometimes she is gone for days. There is no money for them to go back to school.
Jean-Cloude is still sitting on the bed when she enters. She sees the broken phone and screams; she has to go, but she will beat them when she comes back.
Hirwa doesn’t know what to do. They have to leave. He looks for the notebook where their mother keeps her money. He grabs all of it. Then the brothers run across the courtyard, through the alley, and underneath the Primus sign. They wait for the bus at the main road. Hirwa gives all 6,000 francs to the driver. They are going back.
* * *
Farida Nyirasinamenye, Hirwa and Jean-Cloude’s mother, was five in 1994 when one of the most notorious genocides of the twentieth century took place in Rwanda. Within three months, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu people were killed by members of the country’s Hutu majority, most of them with machetes. Farida’s father was Hutu. He died just before the massacre. Her mother was Tutsi.
Farida’s mother fled home, carrying her baby on her back, ushering her three older children alongside her, to a school just outside their village of Rubengera. Many people were hiding in the school; they heard that the killers would come for them the following day.
That next morning her mother pushed them along paths they had never seen before, to their father’s former home, where his first wife and her children still lived. When they had almost reached their destination, Farida’s mother sent them towards the home and then turned around herself. Even though Farida was only five, she knew she would never see her mother again.
By the time it was over, nearly a million Rwandans were dead, thousands of more ended up in prison, and hundreds of thousands of children were left without parents. International aid organizations set up orphanage after orphanage, until Rwanda, a small but densely populated country with eleven million inhabitants, had 34 new orphanages.
Farida was one of these orphaned children. She went to school and learned to read and write. She ranked second in her class and dreamed of becoming a government minister. But when she was twelve, the orphanage discovered that she still had family living. Farida and her brother and sister were sent to live with her father’s first wife.
There wasn’t enough food for her and her siblings at their new home and when they realized they wouldn’t be able to go to school either, they decided to run away. Her brother and sister both found a family that was willing to take them in. Farida walked to the town of Karongi, some ten miles away and found a family there who rented rooms and could use a maid.
Now thirteen, Farida cooked and washed for the family. One of the tenants, an older student, helped her. Somewhere between gathering firewood, sweeping the yard and fetching water, she realized that she would never go back to school. She gave up on her dream.
A few months later she was pregnant; the older student was the father.
Farida was asked to leave, and the man disappeared. On February 24, 2002 she gave birth to a baby boy: Dorice Hirwa. “Hirwa” means happiness in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language.
She had never had sex for pleasure, but now to get by, she let men pay. A man rented a room for her and her baby and sometimes spent the night. A few months later, she was pregnant again. She told the landlord that her man would come back, but he didn’t and after five months they were put out on the street. She slept with her baby and toddler in the park. People thought she was crazy, living on the streets like that. To minimize the number of people who saw them, Farida would wake Hirwa up as soon as the muezzin called for morning prayer, and then they would quietly trail off.
* * *
Hirwa was eighteen months old when Kadogo found him.
A former soldier who struggles with psychotic episodes, Kadogo had just been discharged from the hospital. It was four in the morning and he saw a little boy sitting outside by himself, wrapped in a blanket. He took him home.
Kadogo would hit other people and curse at them, but Hirwa, who lived with Kadogo for several years, knew he would never harm him. When the voices in Kadogo’s head were overtaking him, as often happened, Hirwa would hang out on the streets with the older boys. They taught him how to steal money from travelers at the bus station, and fruit and cookies from the market. Then he would go look for his mom and Jean-Cloude and share his loot. Most nights he stayed with Kadogo; other times he slept with his mom and Jean-Cloude at the home of her friend Joyce, who had a restaurant next to the bus station.
It was Mama Joyce who told him one day that their mother had left and gone to Kigali. Hirwa was seven. Mama Joyce said the boys could live with her. He and Jean-Cloude didn’t believe their mother was really gone and they went looking for her.
When they were out looking, a car stopped. The driver asked if they wanted a lift. They climbed in and were taken to an Adventist orphanage, hours away from Karongi. The orphanage director had received a phone call about the fact that the boys were living on the street, although Hirwa and Jean-Cloude don’t know who exactly picked them up that day.
Hirwa thought the orphanage was awful. Every morning at half past five the patron would slam his stick on a rusty hubcap to wake them and urge them to attend church service on the porch of the opposite house. Then he would come into their rooms and scold them. Jean-Cloude would hang out at the kitchen, trying to steal pineapple peels, the older kids would beat him and Hirwa would need to come save his younger brother.
* * *
Farida heard from an acquaintance in Karongi that her kids had been taken to the orphanage, but she waited three years before she visited. She didn’t dare; she was sure they would put her in prison for abandoning her children.
Eventually she went anyway. She traveled all day and then stood outside the fence, watching children play football while others returned to the orphanage in their school uniforms. It reminded her of her own childhood.
A guard told her not to be afraid. One of the caregivers, Mama Mado, called for Hirwa and Jean-Cloude and invited Farida to join her. She was happy to be reunited with them and spent the night at the orphanage, exchanging phone numbers with Mama Mado so she could reach her boys when she had enough credit.
The next day, Farida said goodbye and left. The boys sulked, but Farida knew she could never give them this: two meals a day, their own bed and the luxury of going to school.
* * *
Their mother had brought food with her when she came to visit them, so Hirwa knew she had to be rich now. She said she couldn’t take them with her, but he guessed this was because the orphanage wouldn’t accept them leaving.
Hirwa was hurt when she left, but when he played with Samuel and Fisto he knew that his friends shared the same sorrow. When it got dark around seven each evening, they would all huddle up together in the double bunk beds and talk about their futures. Jean-Cloude wanted to become a soldier and then the president. Hirwa wanted to become a doctor, just like Fisto did, because if you’re a doctor, you’re rich. Hirwa wanted to never be poor again. Never sleep in the rain. Never be shooed away by strangers.
When Hirwa first heard that the orphanage was about to close, he figured they would all go to prison.
* * *
Back in 2003, a coalition of NGO’s including UNICEF and USAID founded the Better Care Network with an office right across from the UN building in New York. The UN embraced the network’s Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, which states: “The family being the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth, well-being and protection of children, efforts should primarily be directed to enabling the child to remain in or return to the care of his/her parents, or when appropriate, other close family members.”
In Rwanda, the government estimated as many as 70 percent of the children in orphanages had living parents. As part of their Strategic Plan for Integrated Child Rights Policy developed with UNICEF, the country began a process of “deinstitutionalization,” with plans to close all 34 orphanages and return as many children as possible to the care of living family members by the end of 2014.
In the autumn of 2014 Orphanage l’Esperance, where Hirwa and Jean-Cloude lived, received weekly phone calls from local authorities demanding to know how many children had been placed with families. And so it was that Farida began to receive phone calls that started to sound more and more alarming. First the orphanage director called her, then Mary Kamanzi, whose Peace Plan organization sought homes for the children, and eventually Mama Mado. If Farida did not come to pick up her children, she was told, they would be given up for adoption.
(It wasn’t so easy to shut all orphanages and eventually the closures had to be postponed, but not until after the boys had already left Orphanage l’Esperance.)
The timing was bad. In the fall of 2014 Farida had just managed to get herself off the streets. She had become a housekeeper for a Kenyan expat family, and received a salary of 20,000 francs a month. On the street she’d only get 1,000 francs and with the new job she also got food and a roof over her head. But she couldn’t live there with two adolescent sons. She had to choose: her job or her children.
But then the phone rang and the orphanage director passed it on to Jean-Cloude who said, “Mommy, we’re coming!”
A few weeks later, she got on the bus to go pick up her children.
* * *
The boys had only been at their mother’s house in Kigali for a few days when she came home drunk, saw the broken cell phone, and threatened to give them a trashing. In a panic, they grabbed the money and ran away.
Hirwa thinks they might succeed at getting back to the orphanage. They get on the bus at exactly the same place they got off days before. The bus makes a curve. Then the driver stops, opens the doors and gestures for them to get off. Hirwa doesn’t know where they are. He sees two men in dark blue police uniforms in front of a building. A group of men and women, tied together like a train, are ushered into the building and ordered to kneel in a corner.
He doesn’t know that there is an illegal detention center right behind the police station here, and that until recently prostitutes and street children were being incarcerated without trial, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
The driver pushes Hirwa and Jean-Cloude towards a man sitting behind a desk on a small raised platform. Hirwa begins to stutter, as he always does when he is afraid that he has done something wrong. “W-w-w-we-e want to go to Kadogo,” he explains. (Kadogo, their man who watched them in Karongi, had called to check in on them.) “We want to return to Karongi, because we want to go back to school.”
When Farida comes for them, she avoids the police officer’s gaze, but she nods as he tells her to send her children to school.
Back in the courtyard of their home, the landlord comes to meet them. Farida explains to her that her kids took off because they want to go to school. Hirwa stares at the ground. He doesn’t want to hurt his mother, but he really doesn’t want to be poor anymore.
* * *
Farida thinks of asking Mary Kamanzi for school fees. She calls her and Mary sends over a pastor. He brings her rice, beans and oil and gives her 5,000 francs. He has her sign a receipt promising 20,000 more francs. He says they are now members of his Pentecostal church, and that they have to come to his sermons three times a week.
The pastor tells her to get a bigger house so she can sell charcoal from home. He promises to pay her rent. But when she calls the pastor to come look at a place, he is too busy.
Hirwa and Jean-Cloude go to church service three times a week. Often they go without Farida. It’s a half-hour walk, past the police station. They don’t mind as long as their mom gets help from the pastor.
Mary Kamanzi comes with an older white couple and gives Farida 10,000 francs. Farida is happy with the money, but it does not solve her problems.
Farida’s biggest concern is that she is not receiving any medication. A test has confirmed that she is HIV positive.
She has been to two hospitals already; both ask her for a referral letter from the hospital back in Karongi, which she doesn’t have. Because the treatment program is free, measures are in place to make sure patients don’t visit multiple hospitals, receive more drugs than they need, and sell them.
They asked if she really wasn’t registered at any other hospital, and Farida confessed that she had been tested in Karongi after the birth of her youngest. Again she was told to go to back to Karongi and get a referral. She nodded, staring at the ground. She’d already been back to Karongi twice, but she does not know her health insurance number, so they can’t find her in the system.
How much longer will she manage to hide her night life and her illness from her boys? Will they stay if they know she has the disease?
* * *
It’s summer 2015 and Hirwa and Jean-Cloude walk to the main road. Hirwa leans with his arm on the shoulder of his brother. They each wear a yellow shirt and green pants. Their mother still beats them; Hirwa works hard to make sure that they don’t do anything wrong.
“Mommy likes me, but not very much,” says Jean-Cloude.
“Mommy loves you,” says Hirwa. “She’s had a tough life, and sometimes when people have a difficult life, they get rid of their children. But Mom didn’t send us away.”
“And now when she goes at night, she always leaves us money for breakfast, doesn’t she?”
On the pavement more children join them in yellow shirts and green pants, in a long trail passing the houses, the sandy football field, all the way up to two rectangular brick buildings standing on top of the hill.
* * *
Paulien Bakker is a storytelling journalist based in Amsterdam. She’s the director of the Initiative of Narrative Journalism in the Netherlands and a freelance writer, currently covering mostly Iraq and Rwanda. In 2010, she published her first book, A Romantic People (in Dutch), about the people of the oil-rich town of Kirkuk in Iraq.
Anais Lopez is a visual artist in Amsterdam based in the Netherlands. A documentary photographer who works with still and moving images, she investigates how people live in the city. See more of her work on her website.