Children or beggars? Or both?

In Europe, we teach our children not to accept sweets or anything else from strangers. Not healthy, not hygienic, not safe. Why does that change when people visit a developing country? There, the poor and pitiful children with their beautiful brown eyes must be craving for our sweets, pens or old toys. In general, the usefulness is doubtful, and we do it more to make ourselves feel good that to really help the child. Of course, we do expect the child to be grateful and want to take a photo (or video) together with the “happy” child. How great we have been. Reality is that children are usually perfectly capable of creating their own toys, pens are worldwide available and the diet in developing countries is mostly starches and sugars. Which explains the widespread prevalence of diabetes and makes sweets a pretty bad addition to their food.

The message we give with all this is that white people are walking wallets and that begging pays. Pays a lot sometimes.
Around Angkor Wat, the biggest tourist attraction in Cambodia, you can find a lot of children. Not to admire the temples, but to earn money. They beg, they sell “souvenirs”, they guide tourist to the tiny restaurants. Many tourists will melt at the sight of their begging eyes and sweet, almost clean faces. What better to do than help those poor little ones a bit and give or buy something. Better not give or buy something probably. These children are sent by their parents to increase the family income, and quite often earn more than their parents. Not bad for a poor family, you think? That’s what the parents think as well, but it does mean that parents get more children, as they bring in the income, and it especially means that those children don’t go to school and don’t have a future once they’re too old to earn money with their sweet faces. What happens to their children, is easy to see. That way, we keep the cycle of poverty intact with our good intentions. And Cambodia is certainly not the only country where this happens.

Extreme example? Yes, fortunately, it’s not that bad in most places. But here in Rwanda, a country where tourism is only just developing, it’s easy to tell from the reactions of the children whether you’re in an area that’s regularly visited by tourists. Where there a no or very few white people, the children are shy or they come and want to touch you. When they see more white people, they start to ask for your water bottle (which is what all westerners carry and they want to imitate) but very soon they ask for money (or rather, say “give me money”, as the local language Kinyarwanda doesn’t have a word for “please”). Children are very quick in learning how to get something. Therefore, giving to children is, in general, not advisable. Of course, there are exceptions. In South Sudan, we gave food to the street boys on a daily basis. Often not much more than some bread, a local doughnut or fruit (I will never forget the disbelief on their faces when one day they got a piece of chicken), but at least they were not hungry for a while. These children really had no other options than stealing of begging to get something to eat. The only organisation that provided structural shelter, didn’t come close to having enough capacity and they couldn’t get in when they had sniffed glue. Which is what they did to forget their misery if they could get a bit of money.

Is it then impossible to help? Of course not, but please, think before you act. If you want to give to individuals, give to adults. If you have children’s clothes or toys to give away, find a mother or caretaker to give it to. If you want to give money to beggars, and sharing your wealth is certainly not a bad idea, give money to adults who are not able to work. People who are too old, or disabled, often don’t get (enough) support from government and have to beg to survive. Personally, I refuse to give to adults who take their children along. If you want to do something more substantial, find a (local or international) organisation that offers structural support to children, support that’s beneficial in the long run, where donations are always welcome. Again, do your homework. Children are not tourist attractions, so be wary of organisations that allow you to visit the children. Many unreliable companies know very well that a pair of sad children’s eyes is a great incentive to give money and use that knowledge to increase their profit. Bona fide organisations sometimes allow visits after good planning and with safeguards for the well-being of the children, but orphanages where you can just walk in, are by definition not reliable. Look for organisations that send children to school or give them an education that’s valuable in the long run (so no ‘pretending to be school’ tapestry production where they have to leave once their fingers are too thick for the finest knots, like I encountered in Egypt).

Here in Kigali, we have an art gallery, where 40% of the profit of the artworks is used to get children off the streets, give them shelter and food and send them to school (the rest of the profit goes to the artist). You can’t visit the children at the school or in their shelter, but they do want to show what they’re doing to attract more donations. So they children also can learn to paint or sculpt or learn the traditional Rwandan dance. The dance troupe that emerged from that, with both adults and children, performs on a regular basis, and once a month people are able to visit the training sessions. The children clearly enjoy what they’re doing and it brings them extra attention and money, so they can take in more children. Besides, the children learn something with which they will be able to earn money if they choose to. It’s not just tourists that are interested in the traditional dances, but the Rwandans themselves have them often performed at their parties. This kind of organisations exist in many countries, but you have to make a bit of effort to find them. It pays off for the children in the long run!

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Education

Education is very important in Rwanda. More than half of the population consists of youth below 25, so population growth is high and good education is necessary for economic growth, job creation and to feed people. Over the last years, both the Rwandan government and international organisations have worked very hard to make education available for everyone. Legally, Rwandan parents have to send their children to school for 9 years, 6 years primary and 3 years secondary, and that is rigorously enforced. These first 9 years are free education, afterwards school fees apply. But even with free education, uniforms, notebooks, pens have to be paid for and although it’s only a few dollars per year, for poor families it’s still a lot. The poorest families can get assistance for it from the local government. These policies have had good results, 96% of children in school-going age are attending school.

So far for the success story. After all the effort to get children in school, the issue now is the quality of education. A lot still needs to be done there, with at least three major problems.
The first problem is that teachers are paid (very) badly, so most teachers with a few years of experience leave teaching and pick up another profession. That way, people who are just starting to understand their trade keep leaving, but probably more important: teaching is seen as a way to get the chance to do something else. You will only stay in the profession if you can’t get anything else. Not exactly the way to get motivated people in front of a class.
Another problem is the language. The first three years of primary school, teaching is in Kinyarwanda, the language that most children speak at home. After that, the language of education changes to English. For young children, flexible as they are, that’s not necessarily a huge problem, but it becomes one when the teachers themselves are not good at English. In 2010 Rwanda changed the language from French to English, basically from one day to another. That means that most of the current day teachers are still educated in French and don’t have a high level of English.
Finally, the curricula are still outdated, just like education methods. Lessons are geared towards memorization: the teacher says something and the pupils collectively repeat it. Child-centred education, active participation, using what you’ve learned, are not common practice.
This is the case at all education levels, up to the universities. So I’ve met University graduates who have completed an English language Bachelor but are not able to have a simple conversation in English. We’re teaching graduated accountants how to calculate profit and loss themselves for their start-up business.

There are many initiatives to improve the education standards. Curricula are rewritten, teachers are trained, but it will take time and effort to bring all schools at the required level. One of the methods to get there is the use of model schools. The idea is that these schools will be provided with the newest curricula, modern education techniques, well-trained teachers and then will share their knowledge and experience with other schools. A few weeks ago, I was able to visit one of these model schools, Gashora Girls Academy, and experience what that means. I was speaking there to a group of around 50 of their students, and I was truly impressed by them. The girls were curious, intelligent and, very surprising for Rwandan women, outspoken and eager to have their voice heard.  A great example of what good education can do for young people.

And no, this is not a school for rich kids. Not everyone will be admitted, but the selection is solely based on academic merit and motivation. The families of 95% of the girls are not able to pay for the school themselves, so these girls get a full or partial scholarship.

Spider, Stonetown