09 November 2016

People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it

Author: Mark Waddington, Chief Executive

This quote has often been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, and accurately summarises the courage and spirit of our team in Rwanda.

In partnership with the government of Rwanda we have achieved a reduction of over 60% in the number of children confined to orphanages nationally. And some of these children might otherwise have died.

Earlier this week I met Joseph. He is nine.

It was a bumpy ride out to his village, and as we tramped through the rain from the car to his home his foster father, Albert, rushed out with hats to help keep us dry.

I was introduced to Albert, and his wife, Faith, as well as Joseph’s foster sisters.

Joseph is acutely disabled by cerebral palsy. There is widespread stigma associated with disability, especially one as profound as cerebral palsy.

Joseph was abandoned as a baby. His life has been one of confinement in an institution, marked by a lack of stimulation, so severe that it caused his condition to deteriorate. Because he was unable to coordinate his muscles he was laid on a mat from morning to evening, day in, day out. Year in, year out. His only stimulation was the mashed food that was spooned into his mouth – the same food every day. Leading to malnutrition.

Isolated in the institution, Joseph had no friends, no visitors. And because of the stigma associated with his disability, there was very little hope of experiencing the love of a family. He was dying.

Albert and Faith changed that.

Faith had been trained in basic physio therapy several years ago, and understood that disability was not a curse or a punishment, that it was not infectious.

Hope and Homes for Children has pioneered the development of family based services for disabled children in Rwanda, and identified Faith and Albert and their daughters as a potential foster family. They provided them with further training, invested in their home to make it suitable for Joseph and helped them to welcome him into their family.

Their home is a basic structure with a grass roof, but it is a home. Faith has worked hard to stimulate Joseph’s muscular development. He can now sit unassisted and look around. He very proudly did a rolly-poly for me on the bed, and rolled out of it with a smile so full of life that he could have lit up the universe. Apparently, when Faith turns her back, Joseph will mischievously crawl out of the house and up the bank to the path above, and triumphantly call out to proclaim his achievement. Faith will playfully admonish him.

His sisters have taught him how to turn the pages of a book with his feet, and he is becoming familiar with picture books and some words.

He is a courageous boy. He has been called cruel names by some of the other children in the village, but whenever any of them come into his home to visit his sisters he will determinedly make sure they greet him just as they do everyone else by following them around until they shake his hands. The name calling has reduced and he is becoming a part of the community. His prison of isolation has been removed.

Faith told me that when she and Albert went to register for social protection payments, they took Joseph with them. The secretary who registered them asked very candidly – but not in a cruel way – why they had chosen to take Joseph into their family, not least because he was “useless” and would not be able to do jobs or offer support to the family later in life. Faith’s answer was simple:

“He is our blessing”

The secretary looked at her, apparently smiled, and said that from thereon he would call him “Blessing”. And the name has stuck. He is called Blessing by many others in his family and his community.

Albert was clear that Joseph would never recover and that while he had made remarkable progress – including being able to eat proper food – he would remain deeply dependent on his parents and wider family for the rest of his life. But Albert was also clear that Joseph now had a life.

We have proven that even children with severely limiting disabilities like Joseph’s can live a fulfilling life with the protection and love of a family. And this matters because many of the children remaining in institutions in Rwanda live with disability. They are too easily left behind. Written off. And that is why there is an urgency to our work. For every day they remain in confinement, isolated, under stimulated, unloved, the more likely their disability will be amplified, or worse, deteriorate.

Hope and Homes for Children Rwanda is demonstrating how to change this and is using the results to advocate for continuing reform of the system.

We are only a few years away from eradicating institutional care in Rwanda, and this will serve as a platform for change throughout Africa.

I arrived in Uganda last night in advance of a conference we are holding next week to launch our African partners’ alliance. Thirty-six delegates from organisations from across the continent – including our own teams from Sudan, South Africa, and Kenya, and partners from Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Ghana.

Momentum toward pan-African reform of child protection is growing.