A happy little girl without a care in the world, best describes Umugwaneza as she used to be. Her father, whom she adored, was a popular singer traveling throughout East Africa. Her mother maintained a loving home and a lucrative farming business. Umugwaneza and her younger sister, Uwanyirigira, were healthy, doing well at school and enjoying a peaceful life. All that remains from those distant days are memories.
Returning home, during the 1994 genocide, from a gig in Zaire, the girls' father was killed by a land mine. Three years later, ravaged by AIDS, their mother died a slow and painful death before their very eyes. Umugwaneza, 11 years old at the time and severely traumatized after her mother's death, watched the family's crops rot, their two houses collapse and her once splendid life disappear.
"I could not move," she recalls. "There was too much work to do, too much responsibility to manage, too much everything. I only felt safe when in bed."
Their two houses, built side-by-side, have since been somewhat repaired. Occupying the smaller of the two are Umugwaneza, ten-year-old Uwanyirigira and their deceased aunt's four-year-old son, Hakizimana. Two thin straw mats, worn wool blankets, a few three legged stools and a paraffin stove are all the possessions that can be found in their spacious and dark home. The larger house is in better shape and has been rented to friends of the girls' mother.
"We rent, for Frw1000.00 (approximately NZ$6.00) a month, the nicer house to a family that was once close to my mother," Umugwaneza states. "Our constantly borrowing money from them to purchase fuel for the stove, salt, bath soap and whatever else we need, usually leaves us with less than Frw100.00 when they pay their rent."
The girl's other potential source of income remains fallow. Once tended by laborers supervised by their mother, the family's fields thrived with beans, cassava, Irish and sweet potatoes, sorghum, passion fruit, bananas and avocado. Today, they barely produce a kilogram of maize.
"We only own one small broken hoe and really don't like to cultivate," Umugwaneza confesses. "Planting and harvesting is not really a priority. Begging is what I do most."
World Vision helped to enroll Umugwaneza in tailoring school. Three days a week she attends classes. Thankfully, the teachers do not mind that she brings Hakizimana with her. She has no choice as Uwanyirigira attends school daily, leaving nobody at home to watch the boy. The four days a week and hours Umugwaneza is not in class are spent, as she said, begging. "I beg anybody I see for food, money or to let me dig a plot of his or her sweet potatoes or cassava so we can eat," she says without a hint of shyness. "If we eat we live. If we don'tů we die."
When last their house had electricity and running water, the girls do not remember. Having no power is not a problem. The lack of water, however, is. There is a clean source less than 100 meters from their home, but they can not afford to purchase even a cup full.
Each evening, before she sleeps, Uwanyirigira places a small basin underneath an outside faucet attached to their house. Trickling through the night, the faucet drips a liter of water. Combined with the three liters a day they collect for free from a friendly neighbour, the girls and their cousin have just enough to drink. Water to wash clothes and bathe is collected from a nearby swamp.
In three months, when she graduates from tailoring school, Umugwaneza will be approaching her fifteenth birthday. There is no need or desire to celebrate. "With the salary I earn from tailoring, I plan to hire laborers, as my mother did," she smiles. "This might help us."
Reviving their fields will be a good start. Selling the fruit and vegetables the three children do not eat will enable them to purchase basic household items. They might even be able to stop borrowing against the Frw1000.00 they charge the family next door for rent.
"I did not have to do any of this before my father and mother died,"
Umugwaneza shakes her head. Unfortunately, this does not lessen the cruel fact that now she must.