Mazimpaka Evode and his sister were abandoned by their parents in their small town of Riziyeri, located in Bugesera District, Rwanda. At the time he was only seven years old.
And that is how he became a village street child.
Evode ate food from dustbins, washed his face and legs in morning dew, and slept on the street or in people’s kitchens after they had all gone inside the main house.
Village dustbins can also be unreliable, so Evode lowered his expectations and on some days he would only eat pineapple peelings he foraged.
“There was a time I fainted due to hunger. I hadn’t eaten for days, I got dizzy and saw everything spinning. When I regained my senses, I was in someone’s home when they were trying to feed me,” he recalls.
“My dream has always been to learn how to speak English and become a tour guide, and I knew it was only school that would give me that," Evode added.
Evode is one of the many former street children taken in by Journey House Actions-Rwanda — a local social enterprise founded by Kimuli Nziza Rogers and his friends.
Born out of a desire to see children from poor families reach their full potential in life, Kimuli started the project in Gashora in 2017. It is registered by Rwanda Governance Board.
The house currently has 32 children, aged eight to 25. There are 25 boys and seven girls, housed in separate wings. Kimuli, 31, acts as a father figure and lives in the house.
Next are the volunteers, who also stay in the house. They are the caretakers and also provide leadership and coaching to the kids.
Below them is Jean Claude Bananimana aka Papi, aged 30, he works as the operations manager and provides leadership to all the children. Kimuli identified leadership traits in him and brought him to Journey House. He played football at a professional level, and now coaches the boys and girls football teams.
Currently, Papi is charged with all income-generating operations, including a poultry project, an onion farm, and rearing goats. He is now grooming leaders from among the children, who orient the younger ones and help in conflict management and steering the rest in the right direction.
To get a better picture of how this model has changed these children, I spent a day and night at Journey House. My stay was a bit uncomfortable at the beginning because I thought the children might steal my laptop or other items, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was nothing to fear. I ate beans and posho along with everyone else, and slept in one of the rooms at the house.
My stay was eye-opening. Observing and talking to them, I saw that given a chance and an enabling environment, even those children we have written off can turn into pillars of leadership in the society.
All the children I talked to who had lived on the streets hold no grudges, not even against those who mistreated them or threw them out. They just want to make a life for themselves and go back to support their families.
For Numusinga Lionel, his father woke up one day and left, never to return. At the age of nine, he was thrust into the role of fending for the family. He fetched water for neighbours and roasted pork for village bars in Musanze to make some money so that he could buy his siblings and sickly mother something to eat. Eventually he found his way to Journey House.
Kimuli’s past is similar to the reality of the children he is trying to help. Growing up in the remote Ugandan village of Ssi in Buikwe District with his mother, he experienced poverty first hand. “One of the most hurtful memories is how I used to go outside our small house and wave to our rich neighbour as he drove by, but he never waved back. I longed to get his attention, but it never came. That’s why I respond to any child who seeks my attention, because I know what ignoring those young ones does to them,” Kimuli says.
Gashora, a farming and fishing community, is in the Eastern province of Bugesera. On one side, the village hosts over 300 refugees from Libya-whose once perilous dream of travelling to Europe by sea, saw them land in Rwanda, thousands of miles away from home.
The other side has the highest number of early pregnancies in the whole country as older men lure young girls from poor families with money, impregnate and leave them. As such, there are many vulnerable children in the area.
One of Journey House's areas of intervention is getting street children off the streets, rehabilitating, and empowering them. The programme looks at children's vulnerabilities as a whole, whether from the street or those who are living in broken homes, or those who no longer feel safe at home.
Rwanda has children's rehabilitation centres like Iwawa and Kwa Kabuga, but these take the form of reformatory places. Many of the children who have been to these centres have come out worse than they went in. Some of the children at Journey House came from Iwawa.
Rwanda phased out orphanages a few years ago and adopted a policy of having willing families take in vulnerable children, but there have been bad experiences with some of the families.
Journey House has children who exclusively stay at the house and those that come in and participate in all the activities, have meals, and then go back home to sleep.
Journey House does not break the links between a child and the family preferring to mend strained relationships.
However, there are children without a home to go back to. They live permanently at the house. Journey House is considering adopting some of these children.
At Journey House, the children have structure through work and focusing on self-development in a safe, respectful, conducive environment.
Many of these children missed out on school, so they are enrolled in neighbouring schools. They return to the house at the end of the day where they live with volunteers and founders. In addition to their domestic duties, the children participate in the English club, computer lessons, painting classes, as well as other life skills.
Since Covid19 struck, the children now take part in the different income-generating projects, and after lunch, they go for English and computer classes. A youthprenuer programme also occupies them in the evenings.
The home also has an Early Childhood Development programmes targeting children from less fortunate families, who are taught and given nutritional supplements to fight stunting and enable their proper development.
Journey House is funded by friends through crowdfunding. The government also chips in with in-kind support: For instance, it gave them land to grow vegetables and gives milk to the children under the ECD programme.
They recently donated food to 1,000 poor families that were critically hit by the Covid-19 lockdown.
Evode is in charge of food for all the 32 members of the household, and he makes sure that food does not go bad and that there is constant supply in the house.
“I know the viciousness of hunger. I have been at the receiving end of its mistreatment so I don’t take any chances with food,” he says.