Africa has a problem with street boys. For one reason or another, many boys end up living on the street. Maybe their parents have died. Maybe the parents are HIV positive and can’t provide for the kids. The parents could have substance abuse problems. The family could be incredibly poor and the kids feel obligated to contribute in some way, or be less of a burden. The list goes on and on.
While in Kigali, Rwanda I stayed with a German volunteer named Rob. He is working at a transition home. They take in boys from the street and rehabilitate them. They are cleaned up mentally and physically, given good food, a safe place to sleep, admission to school, and a tutor who helps them catch up (and even excel) at night. Rob told me that this is one of the best transition centers in Rwanda.
Sadly, many street kids get arrested and end up in jail. Certainly seven-year-old boys don’t belong in jail with hardened criminals, but there are not many other facilities for them. I don’t know how the street boys survive, but it’s probably mostly from begging and theft.
The center, funded by a family from Luxemburg, is full of boys of all ages. Quite often when the boys arrive they have bad manners, are ill-tempered, and generally full of bad behavior. But something incredible happens. All the boys there have sad, horrible stories. This acts as a sort of glue, a shared burden that spawns camaraderie and brotherhood. In no time that bad behavior disappears and given the chance, they take advantage of the incredible opportunity being offered to them.
Many of the children excel at school. In meeting them you’d never know that these boys once led such different, unhealthy lives. They are full of smiles and happiness in a way you can’t find among a similar number of “normal” boys their age. It’s truly a lovely transformation.
As a transition center, the boys stay there for up to three years. Then they go back to their families if that’s an option, go to a foster family, or go out on their own if they are old enough. No matter what, the center commits to paying their school feels until they graduate from high school – even if you come in as a five-year-old and leave when you’re eight.
The most amazing part for me was seeing how the older boys took care of the younger boys. They really operate like a family, filling a void many of the boys have in their real lives. New arrivals, however badly mannered they may be, can’t help but get caught up in the positive peer pressure and change their behavior. There is a lot of love in the house, and any visitor can feel it.
They do side projects as well, accepting donated used bikes from Europe and fixing them up. The proceeds go toward improving the center. Recently they installed an all-in-one soccer field/basketball court. The boys also learn some mechanical skills from this. Women from the village come and use donated sewing machines. They make purses that are sold in Luxembourg in fair trade shops and keep all the proceeds.
I don’t know how to explain it, but visiting these places really fills me with hope, inspiration, love, and happiness. There is something really special about redemption, about believing in people and giving them a second chance…in helping others achieve their own potential. If there were more of this the world would be a much better place.