Arpi is an ancient Armenian name. It is the sun, it is the light…Naftal is the President of the AOCM = Association des Orphelins Chefs de Menages (Association of Orphan Heads of Households). This man has business savvy with enough personality to either make it big or get himself into trouble. After a few minutes of talking to him you realize he’s in the first category. He’s going places and more importantly, he’s taking his organization to the top. We arrived at the AOCM headquarters in the morning and got a briefing on the operations. They were formed by16 orphans of the Genocide, ages 15 to 25. These are COMPLETELY orphaned kids – not even extended families! No aunts or uncles! They formed together because they all understood their problems as no one else did. They brainstormed objectives and goals. AOCM became the family the kids lost – the organization became the parents and had the challenge of finding shelter and education for its children.
Don and Lorna Miller have been instrumental in helping this organization get off the ground. They are referred to by the group as the ‘parents’ and, of course, Arpi is a natural sister. Later that day we met Naptal’s family – his daughter is a year old and named Arpi! The shelter solution began by building 82 houses. Their management skills and commitment to the cause was noticed and in Apri,l a few of the executives are going to Sweden to claim a prize - they are being honored for their work. The smallest prize they can win is $20,000 – but they’re hoping for the bigger prize because with little amounts, they can do great things.
Education in Rwanda is mandatory to sixth grade. Kids who are looking after cows or tending farms do not go to school. Up until now, AOCM has provided education for over 300 students. Kids usually have second jobs to raise money for education. Taxis are popular second jobs. Very popular are the motorcycles, which you see throughout the city and countryside, always with two people riding. The bike belongs to the fellow up fron t– the one with the helmet and the passenger is a paying taxi client. They also have projects which create jobs, for instance, raising livestock in the Congo (neighboring country) and raising tomatoes.
The AOCM functions as the extended family for these kids by providing food, supplies, advocacy and social workers. They build houses for the orphans to live with their siblings. Once an orphan gets married, s/he must leave the house and form a new family. A house costs $5,000 to build – that includes land and construction. The cost of education is relatively cheap for us, but extremely expensive for them. Colleges – public costs about 30,000 francs a year($70) and private costs about 100,000 francs.
We went to look at some of the AOCM projects – we began by going to one of the villages where they had constructed a set of houses. Each village has its own group of leaders – again, it's important to remember, these are all orphans – young kids. Each house is built according to a pattern – they all have four concrete walls, two bedrooms about 8x10 each. Detached from the main house is a structure which has two outhouses (male/female) and a kitchen. No running water – the closest source is one hour away. The outhouses are pits. We entered the first home. The residents greeted us – one was 11 years old and the other was 13 – that means they were babies at the time of the Genocide. We came unannounced but the leaders of AOCM gave them assurance that it was okay to accept us. They were two beautiful girls, shy and coy. We asked questions and then they asked us about our lives. A couple of Catholic pictures hung on the wall. This home had some furniture – two chairs and a table. The second homehad no furniture. It had a scriptural passage hanging on the wall, written in the local language and a picture the English soccer team.
Their day begins with a stroll for water, prep for school and then school. Then in the evening coming home, tending to chores, homework and finishing before dark because there is no electricity. In the dark, they get together to play, sing and - on holidays - they dance. The girl who greeted us in the second home was 21 years old, though you’d think she was 15 at the very most. She was the oldest of 7 siblings. They all lived in this house – same set up: two small rooms. She was the head of this household. She was orphaned at age 12– leaving her with her family. We talked to her, but she was genuinely shy. Her hair was braided. MostRwandan children's hair is either shaved or cut very close to the scalp - I imagine to curb the spread of lice? Her hair and her neighbor friend’s hair were braided. She said that she makes a small living by styling hair and uses her head as advertising.
We asked her if she had any questions for us, to which she honestly answered, “What can you do for me?” There you have it! What did we expect she would ask, “What’s the weather like?” “How many TV’s do you have in your home?” “Is it true that Coby signed a $50 million contract?” What a way to bring us back to the pain. Here we are looking and reviewing these houses and these lives as if they were some experiment in building or neighborhood planning, when the real question is simply put: I’m 21. I’m taking care of six brothers and sisters. We’re in a house that’s smaller than your garage. We have no running water, no drinking water and food is a luxury. What can you dofor us? That was a nice awakening for us, but the real surprise came afterwards when we said, “What would you like?” Okay, get ready… here it comes… and we were probably already thinking of the solution – a trip to Costco, pay the shipping and let’s get it to her – go ahead, tell us… What would you like? Her answer was as simple as she was: “I would like your advice. Tell me how I can move ahead? Tell me what I should do?” We are challenged by materialism. Can we possibly think that people have dignity? That maybe not everyone is looking for a hand-out? That maybe, there are people who are genuinely concerned with their plight as a human-being rather than a consumer? This little girl just wanted some advice… a few bits of encouragement… to know that life would get better for her… to believe in a brighter tomorrow… to know that she may have been treated like a cockroach, but today she was being received as a person.
There was some exchange of addresses, some talking and some hugging. We made our way out knowing that we would be back here somehow – by getting these people the help they needed. We knew it then, and I pray we’ll remember it later. On the way out I met two equally beautiful and responsible young men – one was Robert and the other Gilbert. They told me that their role (at age 20) was to help one another in the village. As I heard this the words of my superior rang in my head – "Give kids fun. They don’t want responsibility!" Isn’t remarkable how little faith we have in the future of our species?
We took a drive to the next stop, one of the AOCM projects: a pig farm! This was a self-sustaining venture. A large family greeted us at the entrance.I ’m not sure who was who, but there was easily 20 people in this extended family and they probably needed all the hands to tend to these massive hogs! There they were, the pigs, going crazy, yelling, screaming, squealing at us in the loudest, most obnoxious sound you could imagine. This was one of the few stops where I noticed all of us taking out our cameras and snapping away. I’m not sure how obnoxious that must have seemed to our hosts…. A group of people come out from America to see our operation, and they’re overjoyed by a bunch of pigs!
The operation is pure business, involving the raising of livestock, perpetuating the business through breeding, selling some and offering pigs to other communities to start their own business. Each pig can have a litter of 12 – some are sold, some are given to other orphans. After each pig has birthed twice it is sold for money to be used by the children of the AOCM.They make about 10,000 francs per pig. This huge farm had no electricity.
The AOCM is a model business and shows what can be done with willingness and determination, but also witha lot of street smarts. The Board is all volunteer. They are the executive organ of the organization. The AOCM cares for 7,000 people throughout Rwanda. They have 3 employees, an Executive Director, a Social Worker and a Project Manager. They are funded by different sources, especially SURF – the Survivor’s Fund, based out of England. This group also funds AVEGA (the widows) and Solace. Along with Naftal, we had Bonaventure, who spoke English very well. He told us there are more than 400 families on the waiting list for housing. AOCM has a website on the internet -- http://www.aocmweb.org/english/
© Fr. Vazken Movsesian 2006