The following is a post that I wrote as a favor to a friend, who is a contributing blogger on the website www.newbymom.com
In honor of Mother's Day and all of the amazing mothers out there, I decided to post it to my own blog, as it discusses what it means to be a Mama in Rwanda. Enjoy!
Just over 5 months ago, I left my loving family and comfortable lifestyle and moved to Rwanda. I arrived without any expectations, hopes, or notions of grandeur. I assumed that I would learn a lot about myself, a bit about the culture, and other random tidbits of knowledge along the way, but I never imagined that I would be exposed to so many lessons each and every day; specifically lessons about family, love, and the role of the Mama. I live in a Youth Village in rural Rwanda, which is a model learning and living environment for 500 of the country’s most vulnerable and orphaned 15-22 year old kids. Each entering student is immediately assigned to a family of 16 students (brothers or sisters, depending on sex), complete with a big brother/sister, an international long-term volunteer who serves the role of cousin, and a Mama. The Mamas in the Village have families of their own outside of the Village, and many of them have already raised their fare-share of children. They have each chosen to sign on for a 4+ year contract to raise 16 more children, parent them, love them, and teach them all the precious life lessons and values that every child in this world needs. For many of the students, this family structure is the first that they have known, and the safety, security, and stability it provides is the first building block in helping the students heal from the break in their past. All of the students are traumatized from one degree to another, and each has a past from which they need to heal. The Youth Village provides an environment whereby they can first focus on healing themselves, all while working on restoring the rhythm of life, then focus on healing the world. Although there are 32 separate and distinct families in the Village, as a whole, the Youth Village is a family in its own right and everyone teaches and learns from each other. Everyone in the Village has a role when it comes to raising and teaching the kids who live here - even the security guards, the cooks, and the maintenance men.
What does it mean to be a Mama in Rwanda? In a country still healing from an ethnic divide that caused a genocide against the Tutsi just over 18 years ago, being a Mama goes well beyond blood lines and crosses over into what it means to be Rwandan. In 1994, after 100 days of violence, estimates tell that 1 million people were killed, and nearly 300,000 orphaned children were left to fend for themselves. Traditional nuclear families were destroyed in a matter of minutes, and the familial structure that is so familiar to so many of us no longer existed. The entire landscape of the country changed in less than 4 months, and instantly Rwanda was faced with a daunting challenge. Who was going to take ownership of the orphaned children and devise a plan to parent them, raise them, teach them, and create responsible citizens?
Being a Mama in Rwanda means doing what you would hope others would do for your children if you were unable to care for them yourself. It means not faulting the children for their parents’ shortcomings or faults, looking beyond the past and focusing on the present and the future. It means providing the most basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, love) to those most vulnerable and in need, loving them as though you birthed them, and calling them your children while allowing them to call you mommy. It means taking in children off the street, paying to educate children who are not your own, and serving as a parent even when you have 9 of your own children to feed, house, and love. In speaking with Rwandans, I have heard time and time again that it is a Rwandan belief that all the children in Rwanda belong to the Rwandan people and therefore they are everyone’s responsibility. When so many countries turned their backs on Rwanda when the country cried out for help, the citizens learned to depend on one another and take care of one another. They learned not to depend on others because that assistance may never come to fruition. The children are the future of this developing country, and without a systemic plan in place to care about, educate, and provide for the children, there is no hope for a positive, progressive, and developing future for the country.
A dear friend of mine said to me a few months ago that it looks like I beat her to being a mother, as it seems that I am "mothering" many Rwandan children in my role here in the Village. Although I don't feel like a mother per se, I have to admit that it is so rewarding to be a part of so many children's healing process, growth, and development. It goes above and beyond any hopes that I had for my role in the Village, and it fills me with joy each and every day.
To all of the Mothers out there, in Rwanda and beyond, THANK YOU for all that you do!