Eighteen months ago I had the rare privilege of teaching dance to a unique group of orphans victimized by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. These teenage boys were innate hip-hop superstars and lived in a safe house in Kigali sponsored by a group called Amani Africa. (See "The dancing orphans of Rwanda," July 20, 2008.)
When I returned to Rwanda last month, I was eager to go back and visit the boys. Instead, what I discovered was devastating: Amani has folded, the safe house is gone, and these kids are back on the streets of Kigali.
All I could ask myself is: Why were these kids orphaned again after surviving a genocide that annihilated 10% of the country's population in just three months? Why can't we, as an international community, prevent mass murder, or at least protect its survivors? Why must an incredibly talented, smart, sensitive and pensive boy like Christian Ntaganda have to live through this nightmare all over again?
"'We just hustle'
Christian is 16 years old, but he looked shocked when I asked him his date of birth: "I have no idea," he replied, through an interpreter. "How would I know?" He is the fourth of seven siblings, all but one of them boys. I taught Christian at the Amani house in 2008 and was able to track him down through Muhudi Gatete, one of the other boys with whom I've corresponded regularly since then.
When I saw Christian, he was thinner than I remembered, and I discovered he was recovering from malaria. He was bitten by a mosquito in the public schoolhouse, because the school has no nets to cover the open windows during the rainy season.
"Where are you living now?" I asked.
With eyes cast down, he answered, "We just hustle."
When I met one of Christian's older brothers, the story got worse. Technically, Christian has stepparents, but both are alcoholic and the father is a womanizer, so I am told. Christian's little brother, age 13, has been sent away to Uganda and is getting seriously abused in what sounds like a case of child labor bondage. Christian has no way to pay his school fees, and even if he kept studying, he wouldn't graduate from high school until the age of 22, at this rate.
Reason to smile
Given this grim scenario, I was astonished when Christian informed me that the former Amani boys wanted to get together and have a dance class with me. This boy with little hope of a future nevertheless breaks into the biggest smile as he breaks out into a fantastic hip-hop routine. See for yourself on this YouTube clip taken just last month.
Over the course of my stay in Rwanda, I spoke to several people to figure out how to help Christian and his fellow hip-hop peers. The most effective solution seemed to be boarding school: Putting a child in such a school assures him of a safe place to live, food each day, and of course an education— the best hope to get him out of the Rwandan slums.
I asked Christian if he'd want to go to boarding school. "Of course," he replied immediately. "But it's impossible to afford the school fees."
What it costs
Well, what does it cost? In Rwanda, a good boarding school costs $75 a month, including transportation, food, accommodation and all fees. That's $2.50 per day— a pittance to Americans, but a king's ransom to Rwandans. After hearing this figure, the Dutch volunteer Celesta Duivenvoorde and I agreed to make every effort to raise the funds so Christian can return to school in February 2010.
Perhaps there is no adequate answer to the "Why?" question I raised above. But on an individual basis, at least, almost anyone who reads this possesses the power to create change and prevent the question from being asked again.
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