In 1992, during an extended armed conflict in Rwanda's northwest, a cholera outbreak swept through the village of Bukani, five kilometers north of Ruhengeri, in Rwanda's mountainous northwest. The dead numbered in the hundreds. Bizimana's father was among them. When his mother died of meningitis six months ago, the fifteen-year-old boy was at an even greater loss.
"Believe me, my knowledge of caring for children is limited," Bizimana admits. "I understand much less than the little my nine-year-old sister knows."
The first weeks following his mother's death were particularly trying. Bizimana moved daily through the banana plantation surrounding Bukani, looking for work. Thirteen-year-old Ngendahimana was in charge of collecting water while his brother canvassed the village. The boys had no choice but to leave Bendantunguka, their five-year-old brother in the care of Muhawenimana, their nine-year-old sister.
"What else could we have done?" Bizimana asks. "We needed food and we needed water. I did not know Muhawenimana was not capable of watching Bendantunguka."
Each morning a bowl of sweet potatoes or beans was set aside by Bizimana for the two youngest children to eat. When the older boys returned at the end of their day, they only found the food, untouched. Asked time and again to stay home and watch her little brother, Muhawenimana could not resist running off to play with her friends. Left alone, Bendantunguka spent most of the day crying and wandering lost through the banana plantation. Something had to change.
If his family was to survive, Bizimana had to continue finding work. Ngendahimana's task of fetching water was no less important. Convincing Muhawenimana to stay home all day was not possible. "She is a little girl who likes to play with other little girls," Bizimana understands. "I can only ask so much of her."
For the better of his family, Bizimana married. A viable alternative as the need for someone to care for his siblings, cook for his family and maintain his home while he sought work, would always be present.
Bizimana understands that under the circumstances, his marrying at such a young age is extraordinary. "I simply did what I though best for all of us."
Able now to look more freely for work, any and every odd job he is offered, Bizimana accepts. Recently, he has been chopping wood in exchange for two kilograms of beans per day. The gesture of earning food as opposed to money for his labor Bizimana appreciates. "The people I work for know how my family and I live," he shares. "They are helping us by paying me in beans."
Bizimana would like to earn more for his family, but one job is all he can currently manage. Kind strangers gave him all of the clothes he, his wife and siblings wear. If there were more hours in the day, time could be dedicated to another job.
The family is in grave need of medicine. Bendantunguka has been sick for weeks. What ails the little boy is a mystery. Visiting the local health clinic to see a doctor cost money. Money the family does not have. An ever present problem.
With Bizimana's wife at home, Ngendahimana and Muhawenimana have enrolled in school. Money is also needed for their school uniforms, exercise books and pens. Regardless, Bizimana is determined to ensure that his siblings obtain an education, as the opportunity for him to return to school has passed.
"We need somebody in our family who is educated," Bizimana acknowledges. "I'll never be able to go back to school, graduate and find a good paying job. Working hard everyday so that my brothers and sister might, is my place."
The days, nights, weeks, months and years before Bizimana, are guaranteed to teem with obstacles. This he knows. He maintains hope that the sacrifices he has made and will forever be making will not be in vain.
"I pray that one day I hear my brothers and sister tell their friends that their big brother helped them grow-up," he reveals. "I will do my best to keep them alive so that one day their children will be blessed with an easier tomorrow."