- - Thursday, August 25, 2011

NYUNDO, RwandaJanette Mukeshimana, 17, was a newborn when she came to Noel NyundoRwanda’s oldest and largest orphanage — where she has friends, food, shelter and a chance for an education.

Other orphans, she said, would never leave Noel by choice.

“Some refuse to go to their families because the families don’t want them,” Janette said. “They won’t pay for school fees, clothes or food.”

Rwandan officials are embarking on an ambitious plan to rid this East African country of orphanages, a sorry vestige of the 1994 civil war and genocide that left hundreds of thousands of children without parents.

Rwandan policy stipulates that children should live with families, not in institutions, said child protection specialist Benilde Uwababyeyi of the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion.

“We hope to have a Rwanda without orphanages,” Ms. Uwababyeyi said. “Rwandans have many positive values. In Rwandan culture, there is a culture of helping. Even though we haven’t many resources, [we have] those kinds of positive values.”

Noel Nyundo is the first orphanage to be scheduled for downsizing.

Officials said the children will be placed with their own or adoptive families, but orphans fear that they will never be at home among the adults who have rejected them.

Critics say that closing orphanages in Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest countries, will discourage international donors without guaranteeing care for all of the children.

Last week at Noel, several girls scurried past on the sidewalk outside Janette’s dank dormitory before she ran out into the rain to join them. She said she had heard about the orphanage’s closing on the radio, but she hoped it was not true.

About an hour later, Janette was one of dozens of teens squeezed onto wooden benches in a meeting hall. Outside the hall, a government official said they had called the children together to dispel the rumors that they had heard on the radio.

At the meeting, another official sounded upbeat when she said they would be downsizing Noel slowly, and every child older than 3 would be placed in a safe family. About 150 babies will remain in the center.

The teens stared blankly as they listened. The government officials then took notes and listened as the teens spoke up, one by one.

“These people never came to see us,” said a teenage girl wearing a green scarf and a weathered pink T-shirt. “Why would they take us in? They will have to be forced.”

An official told her not to worry. The government was going to teach families how to care for their children.

Next, a blind boy stood. Like many other orphans, he has a legal claim to the land where his parents once lived. But in Africa’s most densely populated country, competition for land can be fierce and villagers often don’t take kindly to prodigal children returning to claim the land on which they survive.

“I went back to my relatives,” he said. “I told them, ‘This is my land. That is my house.’ They said they would give it back, but then they attacked and blinded me.”

Other children said they were threatened when they mentioned property claims and that without land in Rwanda, where 90 percent of the people are subsistence farmers, they would need an education to survive.

Murmurs of agreement ensued when a boy in a pink shirt with a bandage on his forehead said they would be treated as household servants by families, not as sons and daughters. The teens laughed and applauded when another boy suggested that all the orphans stay put until they finished school.

Government officials stood in the center of the room and addressed each complaint. They said the downsizing would be gradual and no family would be forced to take a child it does not want. Families will be vetted and counseled, and the poorest among them will receive assistance to feed, clothe and educate their new wards.

After the meeting, Noel head Athauasie Nyirabagesera, fondly known as “Madame Director,” said she was glad the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion had decided to downsize the orphanage slowly and that babies will still have a place to stay. The children were comforted, she added.

Other staff members quietly complained before the meeting that it may be impossible to find homes for all of the 450 children older than 3 in their care.

“Even God may not be able to find places for them all,” said a staff member, who asked to be referred to only as Mama Ineza, which means “kindness.”

For some international donors, the long-term goal of removing all orphanages is unrealistic in Rwanda and could be a disincentive for continued support in the short term.

“A couple of our large donors are very disheartened with what’s going on,” said Charles Trace, chairman of the Britain-based Point Foundation, which over the past few years has funded new dormitories, bathrooms, medical rooms, dining halls, a library and a computer room — all for the older children at Noel.

“[They] have said that they would like now to put their money elsewhere in Africa and not in Rwanda,” he said. “I think that’s very sad. We will obviously have to find some additional donors.”