Friday, 24 June 2011

Flamme d'Amour

I was woken up this morning by shouts and yells at about 0700, and when I looked out the window, boatmen were bouncing up and down on what looked like three canoes connected with two struts – I just about managed to get out my camera to take a picture. I learned later from Mike that they would have been out fishing all night on Lake Kivu and, after a successful trip, were just celebrating!!! Still, I’d rather have that than the sound of planes – we’re on the flight path for the airport and the beasts sound as if they are about to land in your bed!

This morning was sad because one of our group, Jude, departs today for Kigali to get the flight back to London. We also felt unsettled when we received 3 security alerts this morning. Mike came to pick us up and said he had got a text about an attack this morning on Nyamianda north of here. The population were on the move and had stopped at Mubanda. A second one was much less exciting. Vital Kamerhe was in Goma today for a UNC (Union pour la Nation Congolaise) rally in support of his bid for President in the elections later this year. The third was a bit close to home – there was an incident in Lushebere at the IDP camp that we visited on Sunday. Apparently, someone was killed by police, so the locals burned the police station down. There are reports of civilians protesting and rioting. Mike remarked that it could have happened on Sunday, or we could have visited Masisi today, and we could have been caught!

We got our pick-up as usual and we made our way to the first of today’s visits to War Child projects. The roads were, if anything, worse than usual and we bounced and jounced in the jeep en route. It makes taking notes or doing anything impossible, and you feel like a human basketball. You see, the volcano erupted in 2004, pouring vast rivers of hot lava everywhere, just to make a terrible situation even worse. As a result, there is about 10 feet of flat road in the city.

Maison Gahinja is the last of our Don Bosco visits. It was named after the first child who came here to stay. Gahinja specialises in street children. In separate compounds, it has 60 boys and 14 girls ranging from ages 5 to 16 (although when we spoke to the children, we found some of them don’t really know how old they are). War Child fund the street girls. The standard is more basic than other Don Bosco projects, partly because the emphasis is on reintegration into a home off the streets as soon as possible.

Why do girls end up here? There are all sorts of sad reasons, dear reader, and one problem is that it’s often hard to determine the real causes, e.g. if children steal something from someone in the street and seek refuge from them in Gahinja. Some are accused of sorcery – as are boys. Most come from vulnerable, poor families. A typical scenario will see the father earning money and investing heavily in bottles of Primus or Turbo King, the local beers, for his own consumption, then beating his children and forcing them onto the street. One girl said, “I had problems in my family, and I was beaten and not given any food, so I found it safer to live on the street.” Some children will be victims of family breakdown, and a typical scenario in poor neighbourhoods will see a parent remarry, and reject children from a previous marriage. Sometimes, children will be cleared from the streets by police, ordered to do so by politicians keen to show that they are doing something. These round-ups inevitably involve beatings and, in the last one, a boy drowned. Unicef and others have met the city officials to try to get them involved, rather than rounding up street children.

Children are referred often by other children – older will tell younger, for example – and by adults; also by other NGOs. Don Bosco staff also fan out through the city to look for unaccompanied children; in addition, Maison Gahinja is next to a market where many street children will gather. We asked the staff how many street children there were in Goma and they didn’t know, only commenting that the number is certainly not going down!

Many of the children will come in with a drug or alcohol addiction, often glue sniffing, even among the smaller children.

Once the children arrive, the staff try to get them to open up about their situation as they will often lie or dissemble, avoiding telling the truth about their real problems.

We went first to the wooden school, which is being replaced soon by a more permanent structure. As with the other Don Bosco projects, some children will be external to the project, only coming here for vocational classes or school, when they have been reintegrated with their families. In fact, school can be used as a significant bargaining chip with the family when mediating reintegration. If the family can be contacted, the problems will be explored with them and school can go into the reintegration package.

The schooling is not formal and state-led, but an accelerated learning programme to take a child from not being able to read and write to being fully literate and able to be taught a trade. More advanced children will go on to a normal school for which fees will be paid. The children are eager to learn, and motivation is not a problem. Children who can read and write will spend less time in mediation, so they can in general be reintegrated faster.

A typical day will begin with school, followed by sports/cultural activities such as singing, dancing, drumming (Don Bosco is usually invited to provide children for parades locally), or football. All the girls have learned how to cook and will cook for themselves

Some children will be here for a few days, some up to a year, but Don Bosco try to move them on as soon as possible. Part of the reason is to create space for others and meet the massive demand for places, although in 2006 the doors were opened temporarily to all street children over the election period. Again, it is not made too comfortable, as the idea is reunification and reintegration. Of course, the girls may go on to Maison Marguerite, the boys to Maison Ngangi.

Support staff include social worker interns who come to Gahinja as part of their training. We asked some of the staff what their biggest successes and challenges were; protection, reunification, good counselling and support leading to positive outcomes were in the first category, reintegrating girls into a normal life in the second.

We view some of the classrooms and dorms and the multi-purpose hall, which is used for games and presentations. We then went to meet some of the girls and interrupt a lesson, during which we asked them what they wanted to do with their lives:

· one wanted to learn French and become a teacher

· one wants to do haute couture

· one wants to go into business selling in the street

· one wants to do hairdressing

· one wants to go to school

We met one girl, Sara, who was a prostitute in a brothel, and a victim of sexual violence. She checked into Heal Africa, where she was in the hospital for awhile, then she was left on her own. She is now in a full body cast resting at Don Bosco as the original operation was undone once she left Heal Africa. She is 17 years old and has been in Gahinja for a year. She believes she may have a child somewhere. She invited us to take pictures of her, and I include one below with her face disguised.

Funding priorities are infrastructure, mainly classrooms, equipment, PCs; capacity building of staff and training; new staff. Security is a bit of a problem, with occasional break-ins, and War Child is in the process of obtaining a grant to support improvements.

Next we went to visit Heal Africa, with whom War Child have just started partnering. They work in Masisi, Rubero (a new programme, where most referrals come from near the Rutshuru road to Uganda), and Rutshuru, up country from Masisi. Sexual aggression runs riot when armed groups are demobilised, and the victims will often end up here. There is a hospital and outreach services, together with a sewing workshop and a shop where 1/3 of the proceeds goes to the producer. In total, there are 60 women here. Girls will also be referred to the hospital here from Don Bosco, returning afterwards.

We then headed for the port area of Goma – the boats leave from here for other cities and towns on Lake Kivu – following the road by the lake then ascending the cliff to the outskirts of town, during which Mighty Warrior confessed that if he didn’t find toilet facilities soon, we might have a medical emergency on our hands!!! The bouncing and jouncing of the jeep had been taking its toll. I’ve included a pic of him emerging triumphant.

Sing, Sing, Sing

Our final stop of the day was at Flamme d’Amour. Sister Alvera was previously in partnership with someone, but decided to start her own project because she wanted to remain firmly child-focused. The age range here is from 6 months to 22, all abandoned or orphaned in families that are not able to take care of them – but this is not an orphanage, and attempts will be made to reunite children with their families as soon as possible. All of the girls sing in church, and they greeted us with a song as we arrived.

The connection with War Child is that some girls will require the more self-sustaining and nurturing environment here, so we are going to begin funding them. Many of them will again be victims of sexual violence. They also teach girls sewing so that they can generate an income. They also have some land where they raise pigs and produce fruit and vegetables, which also provides some training and knowledge for the children.

Flamme d’Amour has lots of links with the community and volunteers locally; local churches will also pitch in and help with volunteers. They are also connected with a church in Canada that raises funds for them.

35 children stay here. They all go to school, which is outside the project. There are 12 paid staff and 9 volunteers. We met a little boy who was 7 months old found abandoned in the bush, only 2 kg. in weight. We met a girl who has been in a wheelchair for 2 years after being raped.

And then, dear reader, the most amazing thing happened. The children assembled on the steps of the house, next to a man with a clipboard. They then started this amazing and uplifting dancing and singing. We sat watching them, initially rapt, then starting to stamp our feet and clap in rhythm. One of the songs was a round, in which they inserted each of our names, during which a different child would retrieve us and bring us up to dance. It was great!!!

Today we have seen some amazing, surprising and inspiring girls supported by War Child, who have emerged from the most shocking and devastating treatment, evidence of the incredible resilience that man has in the face of inhumanity to man.

Thanks for today’s title to the singing and dancing children at Flamme d’Amour.

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