Food for thought

There is not one pair of shoes in the house. This is noticed, but insignificant, as neither Semana nor his siblings can eat footwear.

When the 1994 genocide ended, Semana's father, Nicodeme, did a brave thing. A Rwandese Armed Forces solider and a Hutu, Nicodeme stepped out of the bush, threw down his weapons and turned himself into the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Army. A well-respected man before the genocide, he was appointed by the local authorities to head security for Kaboro cellule, located in the prefecture of Ruhengeri.

Home to approximately 1,000 families, including Nicodemes', Kaboro was unstable. Interahamwe were still very active in the region. Keeping peace was a daily challenge. Nevertheless, Semana, his mother and five brothers and sisters were happy.

"My father had a secure job and all but my two youngest brothers, were attending school," Semana shares. "Rwanda was still dangerous. Even so, our family was in good shape because my father was working and we were well fed."

One evening, late in 1997, Nicodeme did not return home. As the sun set, news reached the family that their father had been fatally shot. Less than a year later, Semana's mother was rushed to the hospital. Her appendix had burst. She did not survive a second operation.

"When you lose both parents, as I did at 14, the world you live in changes," Semana proclaims. "It changes for the very worse."

The barren house, in which they still live, was once filled with furniture, food, two caring adults and six healthy cheerful children. Today, all that remains are the six children, each of whom are malnourished and distressed.

"Never having a thing to eat is our biggest worry," thirteen-year-old Uwonkunda reveals. "My responsibility is to cook, clean and look after our house. Any easy job when there is no food."

Having little to eat is adversely affecting the children's education. The mornings they have no breakfast, twice a week at least, not a one of them has the strength to go to school. The days they do eat, however, they take full advantage of their strength and make every effort to lead productive lives.

"My brother, Musemakweri, and I hustle home the moment our last class concludes," Semana states. "If my family is to eat at night, we need to work." The boys usually begin the evening collecting water for neighbors. Retrieving one 20-liter container apiece can earn them two-kilograms of sweet potatoes. Added to the potatoes, the one-kilogram of beans Uwonkunda earns from washing her neighbor's clothes, the family has just enough food for one day.

When dinner is finished, the children turn to their schoolwork. "Our classmates often receive permission from their parents to visit us so together we can revise our lessons," Musemakweri says. "Sometimes they bring their dinner to share."

Their studying over for the night, the family likes to listen to their short-wave radio. They discuss the Rwanda news of the day and family matters that need to be addressed. Regardless of what is heard on the radio or what is said each evening, Semana knows exactly what his siblings are thinking.

"They're thinking what I'm thinking," he acknowledges. "Always on our minds is where tomorrow we will get something to eat."

That they are poor is not important to Semana and his siblings. They accept the fact that their donated clothes are old, money is difficult to earn and the plot of land they cultivate is too small to make a difference.

"Give me the chance to grow food for my family," Semana pleads. "If I can overcome our problem of never eating, my family will succeed. This I promise."