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Maibobo

Before the 1994 Genocide, Nshimiyimana was a happy ten-year old boy, excelling in standard-three, living on the placid shores of Lake Kivu in picturesque Gisenyi. Today he is homeless and struggles to stay alive on the dusty dirt streets of Kicukiro, a hard suburb of Kigali a buzz with market activity and oblivious to the wandering maibobo (street children) like Nshimiyimana.

Soon after his twelfth birthday, Nshimiyimana, his father dead and his mother without an income, was forced to leave school and join his older and only brother tending cattle. "My mother insisted I find work to earn money to buy food for our family," he shares. A year later, a son of the cattle owner for whom the brothers worked, asked the older boy to move to Kigali to make seat cushions for cars. He said yes. Bored with watching cattle, Nshimiyimana went along.

Early in the morning six months later, the older boys departed for Gisenyi, leaving Nshimiyimana in Kigali. They said they would be back the next day. He never saw them again. "They could not have abandoned me," he whispers. "I don't know what happened to them."

Weeks later, the cattle owner appeared in Kigali looking for his son. Having only found the young boy, the cattle owner returned to Gisenyi. "Why can't you take me with you?" Nshimiyimana recalls pleading with the man. "He said he had no money for transport, a place for me to live or food." The same day Nshimiyimana was kicked out of the house where he and his brother lived. "I could do nothing but go to the street."

That night, scared but with no alternative, Nshimiyimana walked the dark streets of Kicukiro and was confronted by three Maibobo. They demanded to know what he was doing. Nshimiyimana told them his story and the boys beat him up. He does not know why, but they returned hours later and showed him where to sleep.

Nshimiyimana, now 15 years old, collects water in exchange for food or money and sleeps in a warehouse with two boys. He knows nothing about them other than their first names. "Around 11:00 p.m. a man working at the warehouse locks me and the others inside. He returns at 6:00 a.m. to unlock the door." The three boys huddle on a damp cement floor under plastic sheeting at night to stay warm. Back on the street at dawn, they scavenge garbage dumps for food.

Looking at his bare feet, Nshimiyimana reveals that he wishes he were able to buy new clothes, regain his health and journey home. "If somebody, anybody, could give me a job, I would save enough money to go home to Gisenyi and look for my mother," Nshimiyimana smiles. "I think she is still alive."