A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Orphans of Rwanda: Educating University Students in Rwanda
By Lyndsie Bourgon

Having grown-up in a country defined by its past, orphans and vulnerable children from Rwanda are working towards a future of opportunity, and they have the help of a local NGO.

Rwanda's orphanages are overflowingchildren have been left parentless due to the scourges of the 1994 genocide, and over 43% have lost parents to HIV/AIDS. In the face of such despair, education is often not prioritized.

Orphans of Rwanda Inc. (ORI) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and assist Rwandan youth. ORI's success can be measured through the students it has helped to educate.

One of those students is Jeannette Nyirahabineza, a sociology student who lost six older siblings and the remainder of her extended family to the violence of genocideonly she and one of her sisters survived. The sisters moved to the capital Kigali, where both worked instead of attending school. Her sister eventually married and had childrenthe house they shared became too cramped, and Jeannette moved to Gisimba orphanage, a partner of ORI.

During the genocide, Gisimba sheltered more than 400 children and adults from the violence outside. Damas Mutezintare Gisimba, the owner of the orphanage, managed to hold his ground to protect those inside. Currently, the orphanage is home to over 150 children. "For now, I like my life at the orphanage," says Jeannette. "We are like a big family here, with a mama and a papa. It is nice to have that feeling again." ORI funds Jeannette's college education, a feat she could not have managed on her own. Going into her second year of university, Jeannette wants to become a social worker.

With local partners, ORI helps foster the opportunity to go to primary and secondary school, as well as university. Currently, ORI supports 58 primary and secondary schools, and has helped numerous students achieve university degrees. Only 1 in 200 adults in Rwanda have a university degree money from non-governmental organizations is an invaluable tool in helping students and Rwanda work towards the future.

Primarily, money from ORI goes toward the cost of universitybooks, tuition, housing, and food. ORI is unique in this approachmoney is often donated to educate younger students, but many of those students cannot afford to continue their studies and attend university.

Christelle Umutoni could not continue her education on her own. She and her brother escaped Interahamwe attacks in 1994. They hid in the forest for months, the only remaining survivors from their family. Afterwards, they moved to Kigali, having heard that an aunt of theirs had survived. She had indeed survived and they lived with her. Having been raped during the genocide, their aunt contracted HIV/AIDS and passed away in 1997. Christelle moved to Gisimba, but her brother chose to live with friends and not pursue education. Christelle attempts to support them both with what money she has.

Christelle took the national entrance exam to attend university and did well, but she did not have money to attend university. With help from ORI and Gisimba, she is now studying sociology in Ruhengeri. "I want to understand African society," she says. "One reads all these stories about problems in Africa. One could call it the African curse... That's why I have so much hope for the future, because they can be solved."

Healthcare is provided to children whose parents cannot afford it, including access to HIV/AIDS and malaria treatments. The Partners in Health organization and ORI promote the "four pillars" of HIV/AIDS related health care: "HIV care and treatment integrated with primary health care, maternal and child health, tuberculosis control, and the treatment of sexually transmitted infections."

Together, they pinpoint areas of social and economic concern to help battle HIV/AIDS. Like much of Africa, Rwanda's newest battle is the AIDS pandemic: life expectancy is 40, and an estimated 250,000 adults are living with the disease. Rwanda is a very small and poor countrya few thousand university graduates have the capacity to make real change. Though more than 400,000 Rwandan children do not attend school, there is hope that education will change the future, and ORI is working to make that hope a reality.

This profile is part of a series about Orphans of Rwanda Inc. An interview with ORI Executive Director will follow in September, as well as student updates as they begin classes in the fall.