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It all began at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide in Arusha, Tanzania.

I had taken a group of St. Stephen’s students on a school trip to Tanzania in 2008. We had visited a variety of different communities - women’s groups, schools, HIV/AIDS centres, a Masai village; but the highlight of the trip was to be a full day at the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, which was then engaged in prosecuting some of the key génocidaires of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, in which nearly one million people were slaughtered.

What would it be like to sit in this court in the presence of men who had directed such a massacre? How would we react to the actual proceedings? What effect would it have on us? What an extraordinary experience this would be for our students. But it was not to be. Upon arrival, I was told that the court was not sitting that day due to unforeseen circumstances. I was devastated. But what happened after that was to have a greater impact on my life, and I believe the lives of some of our students than I could have imagined. I set up a meeting with the official spokesperson for the Tribunal, and we all went inside.  He explained the formation of the Tribunal, the way it operated; he told us about the people involved, both prosecutors and prosecuted. It was fascinating, and we were impressed. While the Tribunal had had many foreign visitors, no international high school students had yet made the journey to Arusha, and so the spokesperson, in his turn, was impressed by us! He then uttered the words which were to have such an impact on the direction of my life, and which would mean the involvement of the whole St. Stephen’s community, first in Rwanda and then in DRC. “If you want to know about the genocide, you should take your students to Rwanda!”

The following year I made an investigatory trip to Rwanda and found a volunteer programme that was safe and suitable for our students. And so, in the summer of 2010, four Senior girls came with me to Rwanda, and for two weeks, we worked with over 200 preschool children.  It was a wonderful, incredible, and mind-blowing experience. Our students were exposed to a life completely different from the lives they knew: they embraced the challenge with enthusiasm and immersed themselves fully into it. They learned a great deal - about the genocide, about poverty, about village life, about living with very little, about suffering and joy, about each other, about themselves. For them, it was a life-changing experience.

Since then, I have led seven more groups of students from St. Stephen’s to volunteer for two weeks at a school south of the capital Kigali. The students worked hard, getting up around 6.30, leaving home soon after 7 am, walking a couple of kilometres to the school, teaching classes with 40 students in them, playing with the children at break, talking about various issues with the teachers, giving special English tutorials in the evenings before dinner, and then having a two-hour discussion session after dinner about all aspects of life in Rwanda. During that time, as a school community, we raised money for particular needs. Each year we raised funds to buy goats for needy local families and presented them with great ceremony at the end of our stay. We provided money to build a safety wall at the end of the open playground, and we funded the construction of an open-air auditorium for the school.

But this was just the beginning of what was to become a more momentous journey, for in my first year in Rwanda, by pure chance, I crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, and there I entered a world very different from that of Rwanda, more desperate, more shocking and certainly more unknown.

Rwanda had suffered an unimaginable horror in the genocide, but that was sixteen years earlier, and the country was recovering. What I had not known was that the genocide did not end – it moved across the border into DRC. Nearly two million refugees fled across the border in 1994, hunted Tutsis but also Hutu génocidaires. Massacres of both Hutu and Tutsi continued but in DRC. Already existing tribal conflicts were further ignited. Several foreign powers, perhaps as many as fourteen, moved in to take advantage, especially of the mineral-rich east. Two Congo Wars ensued (1996-7, 1998 to 2003) in which thousands were killed, maimed, raped, orphaned, millions were displaced. It is one of the most under-reported conflicts in the world, and DR Congo now has more internally displaced people than almost any country on earth, and more than six million people have died.  I was taken to visit some of those child victims on the outskirts of Goma. They were living in a small wooden hut with a dirt floor and drafty canvas walls. This simple orphanage was run by Kizungu Hubert, a man whose selflessness, gentleness and goodwill positively radiated from his face. Every child there had experienced unimaginable horrors - mothers raped, fathers killed by armed groups.

Mbavu
Mbavu

Her mother was a nurse in a village. Militiamen came to rob the clinic and violently raped her in front of the patients. The only means of taking her to hospital in Goma was by bicycle, and she died on the way. Two months after her death, an armed group came at night to Mbavu’s father to ask for medicines and money. When they found that he had neither, they killed him.

Kizungu was doing everything he could for the children, but the orphanage had no outside help. I had to do something, and I was confident I could rely on the St. Stephen’s community to help.

And so, back in Rome, we began to raise money to support these children. Over the years, St. Stephen’s community – students, teachers, parents, trustees, friends – has donated funds to build a new house, install a water tank providing safe water, pay school fees, build a bathroom and kitchen, and establish a playground. Each year I visited Kizungu and the children, and each year I saw how their lives were improving thanks to our support. And each year, Kizungu, to show his gratitude, made a special trip to Rwanda to visit our St. Stephen’s students and to thank them personally for the support the community had given.

But my journey deeper into the Congo was to continue, and the deeper I went, the more horror I saw.

In 2010 I had also visited the island of Idjwi on Lake Kivu, often referred to as ‘the forgotten island,’ outside the conflict zone, but also forgotten by the government and humanitarian agencies.

Idjwi has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Infant, child, and maternal mortality rates are alarmingly high. Malaria and malnutrition are among the biggest causes of death on the island, and extreme protein deficiency is very high among children and pregnant women, causing severe health problems. What I saw on Idjwi shocked me even more than what I had seen on the outskirts of Goma, and so here too, I thought, St. Stephen’s could make a difference. The driving force behind our Idjwi Poultry for Protein project was a 9th-grade student, Christian Rosolino, who, throughout his four years at St. Stephen’s, which included two volunteer trips to Rwanda, worked tirelessly to raise funds to improve the health of the local people. With the money raised, we were able to buy land, build a poultry house, buy chickens and guinea fowl (to protect the chickens from predators), plant trees and shrubs, and give free eggs to those most in need, especially pregnant women and sick children. Through this project, St. Stephen’s has literally saved lives. Beatrice, a young pygmy girl, was so malnourished that she could not stand up. Her mother came to the poultry farm and asked for eggs: “ My child was at death’s door,” said her mother, “but since she began to eat eggs from the poultry farm, her weight has increased, and she is healed. We thank all who support the poultry farm and save lives.”

Contact with the indigenous pygmy population on Idjwi took me deeper into the Congo. DR Congo is the second most food-insecure country in the world. It is difficult for the majority of Congolese to obtain adequate food, but for the pygmies on Idjwi, it is virtually impossible. Like many indigenous peoples, they have been driven off their land, discriminated against, excluded, and denied their rights. They now live in desperate conditions – oppressed, marginalized, and in extreme poverty. Interviews conducted with a group of pygmy families in February this year revealed that almost every family had lost at least one child to malnutrition or disease.

A Harvard medical study carried out in 2015 found that ‘more than half the households sometimes do not have enough to eat, and half of the children receive no more than one meal a day.’ A Canadian study (2016) stated: “They have virtually no food and often only eat three times per week. Their children are malnourished, and we saw evidence of kwashiorkor, a life-threatening form of protein deficiency, and marasmus, a form of severe malnutrition.”

The pygmies have little or no income; they cannot afford to buy food, and they cannot afford agricultural tools to grow their own food. Without adequate sustenance, they become weak, sick, and are unable to earn any income. It is a vicious circle.

And so, our challenge now is to break that circle.  In just over a decade, the St. Stephen’s community has given life and hope to hundreds of suffering people in eastern Congo. This is our biggest challenge to date and one with perhaps the most far-reaching consequences. The plan is to buy several acres of land on Idjwi (the pygmies are not permitted to own land) and to provide agricultural training and seeds so that they may grow their own food. With this project, we aim to support a minority group that has suffered cruel discrimination and injustice. Our goals are to alleviate their desperate hunger and malnutrition, increase their ability to work, enable their children to go to school (they often do not attend school because they are too weak from hunger to walk the distance).

Further, we hope to break down barriers between the Pygmies and the majority Bantou with whom they work to restore their dignity and provide food security. In the process, this plan will help the environment and climate change by promoting green farming and reforestation.

My journey from the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha to the pygmy communities of Idjwi has been as journeys should be - difficult and challenging, but also enormously enriching, full of learning, of new experiences, of wonderful human contact, of sharing, of a more profound and much broader understanding of other people, a journey of receiving and also one of giving. I am proud to have taken many of St. Stephen’s students and some of the faculty with me on at least part of this journey and to have involved the entire St. Stephen’s community in a range of issues and activities which are fundamental to the school’s philosophy. Together we have made a very real, very positive difference to hundreds of people in Rwanda and DRC, and we have understood that we could achieve this without difficulty.

The people in eastern Congo have suffered decades of conflict, neglect by the far-away government in Kinshasa, major outbreaks of deadly Ebola, and now of Covid-19. Their story goes largely untold. But we have already made a positive difference to many of them, and now we have the opportunity to make a difference to many more. In this challenging time when we have all felt helpless, we can follow the words of Barak Obama, “We can make some good things happen. We can help to fill the world with hope.” It’s not really so difficult!

Even a small donation to these different projects can make a difference. Thank you for your support!

The Tchukudu Kids: https://www.tchukudukids.org/

 

Supporting the people of Idjwi Island: http://supportingidjwiisland.com/

Website built with the help of Gary Beberman, a former St.Stephen’s teacher

 

Pygmy Land for Food Project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlqHCJGUgb8

Made with the help of Grant Thompson, a former St. Stephen’s teacher

 

Buy the eBook: https://www.meaningfulpaths.com/product/idjwi-island-charity-ebook/

 

TOTAL FUNDING NEEDED: $45,000 (land, training, agricultural equipment, seeds, supervisor’s house on the land)

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