It is a hard life for children in Rwanda, made even harder by the fact that more than 40 percent of the population is 14 and under, which puts tremendous strain on the educational system. I was reminded of the plight of these children when my wife and I recently visited Rwanda for the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the Rwandan genocide.
Rwanda is a nation about the size of Maryland but with more than two times its population. The national GDP is just over $16 Billion, which makes it smaller than every state in the USA where Vermont, the smallest GDP is still over $25 billion. Net, this is a very poor nation. Having said this, the leadership of the country has been and is making great strides to modernize and to bring industry and investment to the country and to improve and develop a significant and meaningful educational system.
Nonetheless, today children as young as five and six years old can be seen walking by the roadside carrying large loads of firewood on their heads, or jerry cans of water in their hands. They live in miserable conditions with no running water, no sanitary facilities and sleep three and four to a "bed."
The girls served by Richard's Rwanda and Jessica Markowitz whom we visited are no exception. Not one of the 40 has running water, electricity or sanitation at home. We brought them computers from the USA and you would have thought they had just received a diamond tiara. But then you realize..."Where will they plug them in?" There is some electricity at their school and that may be their only hope.
The children we visited at Agahozo Shalom, built on the model developed by 1998 World of Children Award Honoree Chaim Peri, are more fortunate as they live at the village and they have electricity, running water and sanitation there. But when they go back to visit family or friends they return to the same hardscrabble conditions.
In spite of the difficulty of their lives the children we met and saw were as resilient as any. They have hopes and they have ambition and even the smallest children gathered at the roadside as we passed in a car (which they cannot hope to own) and smiled and waved happily at us.
This is what is so heartwarming -- no matter where in the world they are, no matter the extreme conditions they face, no matter the degree of difficulty of their lives, they are, after all children. They can smile, they can play, and if we give them a chance they can and will learn. And who knows, perhaps the next Nobel Prize winner for 2050 was standing by the roadside as we passed, barely dressed in dirty clothes and without shoes, but with hope in their eyes.