It is rare indeed that I use this blog as a platform for promoting anything other than myself. But this project deserves it. People who have been following my blog for a long time have read about the sad state of street children in Burundi. Now, friends of mine from Quebec are actually doing something about it. The following text is an abridged version of an article that appeared in December in the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph.
Diomède Niyonzima couldn’t leave his kids behind.
Niyonzima, a soft-spoken Université Laval graduate student, grew up in Burundi, a tiny, heart-shaped country in East Africa. During the civil war that rocked that country in 1993, nearly all the men in his family disappeared or died. To pay his school fees, the twelve-year-old boy had to get a job, sweeping hair clippings off the floor in a barber shop. One of his few comforts was an early-morning radio show, called “Le reveil poétique”—“Poetic Awakening.” From time to time, Niyonzima, a self-taught poet, would mail some of his own poetry in to the station, and savour the excitement of his words read out on the air.
Niyonzima continued to pay his way through school, published a book of his poetry and became a radio reporter in the capital, Bujumbura. But Ngozi was never far from his thoughts. During his time in the north, he had befriended a small group of homeless youth.
“Every weekend I would drive up there,” he recalls. “I would pick some of the kids up and take them for a ride in my car…they loved that. Then we would all play soccer.”
Niyonzima left Burundi at the beginning of 2012 to join his Québécois wife, Geneviève Laroche, and their two small children. But it was with a heavy heart.
“I feel like I understand (the kids) because I’ve almost been where they are,” he says. “When I left, I felt like I was abandoning them somehow.”
“We have two children here and at least nine there,” says Laroche, who went with her husband on many of the weekend trips.
“When I came here, what I missed most was not my friends who I used to sit around and share a beer with after work, but these kids, who had just started to get a little hope,” Niyonzima says.
Niyonzima sat down with his wife and brother-in-law, Simon Laroche, and not long after, Projet Kira (“the blessings project”) was born. It is now a registered charity in Quebec and Burundi.
For now, a core group of about a dozen friends and supporters raise $200 a month to be sent to Ngozi, to a group of local volunteers.
The money provides weekly meals to between 20 and 40 homeless children and youth, allows the weekly soccer tournaments to continue and, when needed, provides hygiene products and medical care. But the project’s members want to aim higher.
Their goal is to provide host families in the region for about 35 of the children. “More than anything what these kids need is the love of a family,” Niyonzima says. They would also like to provide start-up capital for some of the older youth to start businesses. “a few of the older ones want to start a car wash, and for that all you need is a few buckets and mops,” Niyonzima explains.
According to a recent report in a local newspaper, 1000 homeless youth wander the streets of the country’s second-largest city. The stories heard by the Kira volunteers, like that of eleven-year old Ededie are sadly typical: “ She has been on the street for six months, her father is dead, she lived with her mother but she left home because of extreme poverty. She was in the fifth year of primary school and she is ready to go back to school if she gets a family.” Some of the children living on their own are as young as seven. A lack of opportunity leads some to petty crime or prostitution, and makes them easy targets for enlistment into the rebel militias which threaten to destabilize the region.
“These kids can cause problems, but they can bring solutions too,” Niyonzima says.
“When I was a little boy, I had the same problems, but thanks to the generosity of a few people I was able to overcome them. This is a way to keep the generosity going, to plant hope for a better life.”
If you would like to provide help to the Kira project in the form of money, time, supplies or project ideas, please contact Diomède Niyonzima and Geneviève Laroche via the KIRA BURUNDI Facebook page.