Rwanda: One Young Woman's Story: "I Love Children" means support for a courageous child and her household (February 2006)

How can Marguerite Mukandayisenga, age 17, find the courage to smile, when her life has included such pain and loss? Over 50 family members, including her father, were killed during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Marguerite and her mother were the only survivors. Her mother went on to have two more children, Maniriho (age 9) and Mushimimana (age 7), but no long term relationship developed with the fathers of the two boys. After the youngest was born, the children's mother became sick with AIDS. Marguerite left school to take care of her mother and run the house. The neighbors ostracized and isolated the family when they heard the news. Her mother joined an association of people living with HIV/AIDS that gave the family some financial assistance, but this support came to an end when she died in 2002. Marguerite became the head of the household, with no one to turn to for help.

Marguerite describes the loneliness she faced in the months following her mother's death. Neighbors forbid their children to visit the house. People refused to shake her hand and avoided being close to her. The house was in a terrible state, with a leaking roof and an insecure entrance. Marguerite's health started to deteriorate, with frequent bouts of diarrhea and malaria. Farming the small amount of land surrounding the house was a struggle, and there was never enough food to eat.

Two years ago, the situation changed. The Emergency Plan supported a partner in starting what is known in Kinyarwanda as the "Nkundabana" (I love children) project, specially designed for child-headed households. Groups of child-headed households nominate a person from the community to be their supporter, known as the Nkundabana. Marguerite's group of houses nominated Pascasie Mukamusoni, who agreed to volunteer. Pascasie's role gives her prestige within the community and she is very proud of all the assistance she provides the children. She received training in HIV/AIDS, "helpful active listening," nutrition, and hygiene. She meets the children as a group once a week and visits their homes frequently.

On a visit to Marguerite's house, Pascasie proudly shows the improvements she has been able to make for the family. The project provided new doors, windows and a roof for the house, and Pascasie mobilized the local community to help install them. The children in other child-headed households were also mobilized to help.

With Pascasie's support, Marguerite found the courage to get tested for HIV and learned that she is HIV-positive. Three months ago she started to receive antiretroviral treatment, as well as treatment for tuberculosis and a prophylaxis for malaria. She is also receiving food on a monthly basis from the World Food Program. The Emergency Plan-supported project gave Marguerite a goat, and the manure it provides has resulted in a more productive garden. Her brothers are both going to school now and receive school uniforms and school supplies from the project. Marguerite herself finished literacy training, which qualifies her to start vocational training in tailoring. Marguerite is friends with the other children in her child-headed household association, and meets with them most days. They have created an income and loan club. Marguerite is very proud that she was able to borrow and repay a loan on a small initiative she had to sell vegetables.

As a friend appears through the door, Pascasie opens her arms to welcome her. Ernestine, 21, has been heading her own household for four years since her mother died. "Pascasie is like a mother to us, and without her we would be lost," says Ernestine, standing with her friend and her supporter, surrounded by a house full of life.

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