Soon Rwanda may be a country with no orphans. A claim the government will make once it has completed a programme that will close all the orphanages and relocate the children into the homes of relatives.
In theory, having children living with families rather than in institutions seems a good move but in practice, is this transition feasible for the children in Rwanda’s orphanages? One friend living in Rwanda told me that closures of some orphanages were attempted a few years ago by the government. Children were placed in the homes of relatives however there were many incidences of abuse and children being put to hard work. Some of these children escaped from their families and ended up on the street. It’s clear that managing a transition effectively needs careful planning and a strong network of social workers, something Rwanda does not have.
I recently spend 10 days at L’Esparance, an inspiring orphanage that has 127 children and has operated since the end of the civil war and genocide in 1994. L’Esparance is set in the beautiful hilltops overlooking Lake Kivu and has attracted visitors from all over the world. Victor, the director of the orphanage is warm, welcoming and hospitable. During the last year, he has had just six nights alone in his house. There is a constant stream of visitors coming to help, including engineers, teachers and social workers. People come because it’s an inspiring place in a beautiful setting. The children go to the local schools and take part in a number of daily activities. The orphanage has two choirs, performing original songs with two albums under their belt.
There’s another reason people visit L’Esparance. It has ambitions to be the first financially independent orphanage in the world. But of course, with the government’s recent proposals, it will no longer be an orphanage. So what happens next? Already one of the largest fruit production facilities in the country, the plan is to transition into a social business. There are plans for an eco-lodge for tourists as well as many other smaller spin-off businesses. One innovation is organic dried fruit production for the export market. And what about the kids. Well, with no children being allowed to stay in institutions, the plan is that all the profits will continue to support the children, funding their education to university level.
I left L’Esparance knowing there is so much uncertainty for these children. This resonated with my broader feelings for Rwanda in general, where the horrors of 18 years ago are still felt today. Since 1994, the country’s progress has been astonishing. Hard work, a clear vision and business innovation have helped transform many aspects of the country. Despite these incredible achievements, there’s still a feeling of fragility in the air. Positive progress rarely travels a straight path. It will probably be windy, sometimes messy, but let’s hope the long arc of progress is a good one.