Sunday, 24 June 2012

Beyond the Facade

Every day we travel from our home in the town centre to Les Enfants de Dieu, out by the airport, and then back again. This is the same route that all tourists take when they arrive in Kigali, and because of this, the entire roadside is beautifully maintained and landscaped. Just a few feet from the mud-hut slums, are lush gardens that the public are forbidden to use. Dorota has seen groups of women washing the palm trees by hand. This week, on our usual journey, we noticed that all the curbs and sewers along the road were freshly painted with black and white stripes. This went on for miles. Eventually, we came to a large group of men and women squatting in the road with buckets and brushes. Half were painting the black stripes, and half were painting the white. There were no safety barriers of any kind. Our bus, along with the rest of traffic, came speeding by, missing these people by inches. Our trip along this road takes about an hour. The curbs were painted the entire way.

Whether in Africa, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, the importance mankind puts on appearance above anything else is enough to make me ashamed to be a member of the species. Included in this black-and-white, stripe-painted curb was the very same sewer entrance where Paul, Dorota and I saw the street boy squirming in the darkness, trying to get at the food we were handing out. I can think of nothing more shamefully ironic than a fresh coat of paint on the dwelling of ignored homeless children.

On Sunday afternoon, Willy and I returned to this doorway-to-a-different-world after it had been camouflaged with zebra stripes. To our surprise, the same group of small children were still living down there. There are two main groups of street children. One are the harmless underground kids, who sleep in the sewers during the day so the police can't get at them. They do little more than beg until they have enough money for their daily food, glue and ganja. The second are the above-ground kids who function more as organized gangs. They can be involved in theft and violence, and some groups are extremely dangerous. After a brief conversation, Willy determined that these were the former and there were none of the latter nearby who might show up to cause trouble. Down we went.

I couldn't keep up with the small children who darted up a long pipeline, disappearing into the darkness. Willy and I are both over 6 feet tall, so we had to walk for about thirty meters in a squat position down a pipeline that was about 3 feet in diameter and pitch black. We carefully avoided the endless clumps of human excrement on the floor as they became illuminated by our mobile phones. Finally, we arrived in their den. It was an open space, about 6 cubic feet with a second, higher tunnel used for sleeping. The smell was so bad that both Willy and I gagged and nearly threw up. Once in their home, they treated us as honored guests, showing off their previously hidden glue bottles and a beautifully woven football they had just finished making out of rubbish and string. Dorota had prepared me with a loaf of bread, so I took it out and shared the slices. This time there was no grabbing, and each of our six child hosts politely said thank you for the gift. They remembered me from the night the older boys had shown up to steal a previous handout.

Willy began interviewing the children in their language, and I kept the camera rolling. We got some very important and powerful footage for our film, which we hope will raise awareness about the street children situation. A few people had seen us entering the sewer, and by now a crowd was gathering on the street above. There were cracks in the concrete above our heads and I could see the soles of their shoes. To the people above this was a novelty, and they found it hilarious that a mizungu (white person) was down in the sewer. Their taunts and laughter came pouring down on us like run-off from a storm, and it was ruining the interviews with these shy, soft-spoken children. My presence was endangering them, and some of the boys began to get nervous. Willy and I decided to get out straight away, before the police showed up. The children assured us that they would be safe, because the police would never come down into the dirty sewers just to get street children. I wondered.

Willy and I emerged into bright sunlight and were greeted by the crowd of mocking and snickering faces. I gave the people the best ice-cold stare I could muster as we pushed through them. Willy and I walked off without looking back and passed a machine-gun toting policeman on his way to the scene. Once we were out of sight, we shook hands in sheer joy. We had accomplished something never before done.

I hope that by reading this, you will get some idea of what young children's lives are like in the streets, whether in Kigali or anywhere in the world. This context should also help you understand how important certain activities are for healing children who have been lucky enough to make it out of these situations and into centres like Les Enfants de Dieu. With that in mind, please enjoy this video of a day when Dorota and I let a group of former street children go completely crazy with musical instruments in a closed room at EDD. As you will see, the centre's accountant has been bringing her two sons to the centre with her on Wednesdays. They are well-educated, fun-loving Indian children, and have been getting along beautifully with the Rwandan children at the centre. This shows the importance of looking beyond the facade. Street children are just children. Thanks to Beyondo for always contributing their music without question to any of our projects.


  1. Amazing, Dorota.
    Very proud of you guys and what you are doing.
    When your film is ready maybe I can subtitle it into Portuguese and contribute somehow? :)

    1. Yes, thank you Amanda, all languages welcome! Our friend David, recently subtitled "Yes, Man!" for us into French, and Willy and Rafiki translated it to Kinyarwanda. Thanks for reading. Film is may months away, but we will let you know! Love , B&D

  2. Paul Eggleston Brown24 June 2012 at 12:01

    and that is what it is really like in my head!!

    and snapping a guitar string is so "rock n roll" :)

  3. Wow. what an incredible experience you are both having out in Rwanda and what amazing joy and hope and fun you are bringing all the children you encounter.
    As always some joy and a lot to think about. This is dance, music, love changing lives.
    Thank you for sharing
    Kate xx

  4. Bret and Dorota, reading your posts and seeing the footage you have captured along the way is so special. It instantly brings be back to the center and it reminds me of how special you both are and how lucky those boys are to have you there making their lives a little better. These boys will remember what you have done for them and with them for the rest of their lives. Keep up all the good work!!!

  5. Amazing post, as always. Did I see Sibomana trying to study during that jam session? Thanking of you and the boys every day. :)

    1. Ha Ha! Yes, and he came in to study AFTER the insanely loud music started as if it was a quiet place to "get away".