Visit to APRECOM
by Susie Howe
Charity Registration Number 1073817
One of the best aspects of my role is to spend time with the amazing people and projects that BCT partners with. These are precious times of mutual teaching, benefit and encouragement and dreaming together about how we can develop and grow the work we are doing, so that even more children and communities are able to experience the life, healing and hope of Jesus Christ.This was my purpose in visiting APRECOM.
BCT has partnered with APRECOM since 2002. APRECOM is a project of Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Since its inception in 1996, APRECOM’s work has been focussed in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. Support groups for people living with HIV disease were instigated across the city; individualised support in the form of home and hospital visits and counselling sessions were given; support groups for children living with or affected by HIV were formed and individual counselling given; parents were empowered to care for their children through training in Good Parenting and the formation of income generation projects. BCT supported all these activities.The work in Kigali matured and is now virtually self-sustaining. Support group leaders have been trained by APRECOM to give group members the support that APRECOM staff used to give. Team members still go to visit those who are sick in their homes or hospital, but these visits are needed less and less because of freely available medications and the increased sense of hope, purpose and wellbeing that has resulted from APRECOM’s Christ-centred, gospel-based care.
A couple of years ago, with the work in Kigali running well, BCT encouraged APRECOM to turn its attention to two rural areas -Bugesera and Bukora.BCT now mainly supports APRECOM’s work in these two new areas. We are and continue to be the main source of APRECOM’s financial support and of the advice, guidance, training and equipping they need in order to develop.
Meet the APRECOM Team:
Joanna Higigiri – Joanna runs the Queen’s club and doesAPRECOM’s administration. She also helps to run APRECOM’s work amongst churches. Despite the fact that she is American and has a limited grasp of Kinyarwandan at present, Odeth says she is a real boon to the team and ‘fits extremely well into the local culture’. Joanna was on her honeymoon during my visit.
DonatienBirasa–Donatien is the youngest team member and comes from Burundi. He and his family have been very affected by the conflict there, having lost five family members last year. He runs the InshutiNziza clubs in Bukora and Kigali and assists at the support group and Queens Club in Bukora. He also helps with church trainings.
David Nestory – David has been working for YWAM since 2008. He was initially in Tanzania where he was running a large sewing school, but felt called to work with YWAM in Rwanda and started developing the sewing project in Bukora in June 2015.
OdethAbakunda – Odeth is APRECOM’s co-ordinator and is also on the YWAM leadership team. She is currently doing an administration degree in the evenings to improve her skills in this area. Odeth shares the administration of APRECOM with Joanna; she keeps the accounts, tries to mobilise funds and manages and supports the team. She also helps out with training churches and the good parenting training. Odeth is mum to three small children.
Emma KumukeraMwumvaneza –Emma keeps the accounts, runs the Inshuti Nziza clubs in Kigali and carries out home visits to people who are sick.
As well as spending time teaching and training the APRECOM team about different aspects of project management and child participation, my visit to APRECOM was a chance to visit the work going on in Bugesera and Bukora. I helped to run training workshops and children’s and teens clubs, and visited vulnerable families. Let me share some of the highlights with you!
Training of churches in Ruhuha, Bugesera
In 2015, APRECOM began working with around 120 church leaders in Ruhuha, Bugesera, because the area was severely affected by the genocide, the impact of which continues to cast long shadows over the local community today, affecting relationships and engendering mistrust. A two-hour drive from Kigali, Bugesera has a high incidence of HIV and AIDS,in part because many women were raped in the genocide. There is still much collective and individual pain because of this. APRECOM’s vision is for the Church in Bugesera to be an agent of healing and restoration. Therefore, APRECOM initially focussed on encouraging the pastors to be agents of reconciliation and forgiveness in their communities, and to model unity.
Since then, APRECOM has also taught HIV awareness, care and prevention and this has had an impact. Before, HIV was a taboo subject, but now church leaders and members talk about it freely. Churches areencouraging those in their communities to be tested, including church members. As a result, in the past year, 50 people were found to be HIV positive. The churches are now supporting them and encouraging them to take the anti-retroviral therapy which is freely available.
Churches are also helping to pay for the medical insurance of those who are poor, so that they can get access to medical care. Church leaders and members visit the sick and speak out against the rejection of those who are HIV positive, so stigma has greatly decreased.
Recently, APRECOM asked local pastors and their wives to walk around their communities to identify vulnerable orphans. As a result, twelve children are now being fostered by some of the pastors and their wives.
During my visit we ran a one-day workshop on Child Participation – a totally alien concept in a society that expects children to be seen and not heard. Children are rarely listened to, are not expected to have a worthwhile opinion and are generally looked down upon.It became clear during group discussions that children are even kept to the sidelines in churches in Ruhuha. ‘We have failed badly,’ said one pastor. ‘We don’t even have a Sunday School.’ This was the case for at least three churches represented in the seminar.
At the beginning of the seminar, many of the pastors held the view that children’s ministry is secondary to that of adults, and were not ashamed to say so. Most of them felt that children should not meet with adults and that they had no real role to play in the church.
However, by the end of the day, it was gratifying that the hearts and views of many had changed and there appeared to be genuine contrition. ‘Really,’ exclaimed Pastor Fidele, ‘this has been so important for all of us. We have made a grave mistake and now is the time to rectify it. I am going to look into starting a children’s ministry within our church. I will even form a children’s committee so that we can learn from the children and they can express their views about church life.’
Visit to Bukora
Bukora is situated in eastern Rwanda,a four-hour drive from Kigali and very close to the border with Tanzania. During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans fled across the border and made their home in Tanzania. Many raised cattle in the bush. Since 1996, Tanzania has been trying to get Rwandan refugees repatriated back to Rwanda, but thousands of Rwandans fled from camps in Tanzania, desperate not to be sent back to Rwanda for fear of arrests or reprisals for the part they had played in the genocide. In 2013, Tanzania forcibly deported thousands of Rwandans at short notice. Bukora was one of the camps set up to accommodate these displaced people who arrived with nothing and were forced to live on handouts.
Since then, the Rwandan government has built houses for the displaced people, but according to Odeth, their resettlement has been fraught, with local Rwandans mistrusting them and the deportees struggling to find their place and a sense of belonging. In a physical sense, many of those deported have been able to carve out some sort of life for themselves in this incredibly beautiful rural area. But there is a severe poverty of relationship and tensions still simmer under the surface. People are still being deported back to Rwanda from Tanzania and in 2015, 80 more displaced people arrived in Bukora.
YWAM started working with these displaced people when they first arrived, helping them to settle and to build churches. An established community has now developed, but the needs remain great in a population that still lacks basic utilities and which above all feels disenfranchised. APRECOM started working in Bukora in 2014 after BCT encouraged it to enlarge its vision from its work in Kigali and to embrace those in more isolated areas. For the first year, it focussed on building relationships with church leaders and community members in Bukora, since when it has established training programmes for church leaders, parents and carers, and clubs for children and teens. APRECOM has also started a sewing school, a gardening project and a support group for those who are HIV positive and vulnerable.
Visit to Sewing School
APRECOM established the school at the request of disenfranchised teenagers and widows in Bukora, as a means of giving them skills to make a living. It was great to meet the sixteen youth and widows who are the first to get onto the one-year course run by experienced tailor, David Nestory.
The walls of the rooms the students work in are covered with garments they have made, such as baby clothes, school uniforms, shirts and even shoes made out of old tyres and material. APRECOM buys the products and sells them in Kigali, giving a percentage to those who made the garments and ploughing the rest back into the school.
It is obvious that for the youth and widows of this beautiful but somewhat isolated area, the options for making a living are limited to say the least. For those fortunate enough to get onto the course, the school is a lifeline.
Training seminar for church leaders
When APRECOM first started working with nine churches in Bukora two years ago, the challenges were many. Suspicion and disunityexisted between the church leaders themselves – particularly between those who came from Tanzania and those from Rwanda. Those from the more traditional churches mistrusted those with a Pentecostal ilk. But now, thanks to APRECOM’s influence and teaching, they freely meet together and are united.
The project started running quarterly HIV awareness, care and prevention sessions for churches a year ago. Church leaders and community members from Tanzania were totally unaware that HIV exists as they were living in isolated bush areas. They also brought with them a polygamous culture whereby men have many wives. Even brothers can sleep with each other’s wives; they say a woman is to be shared amongst the family. The pastors themselves do not have more than one wife, but their church members do. APRECOM is trying to get the church leaders to encourage men to have just one wife, but it is not easy.
The people in Bukora are afraid of having a test for HIV because they do not want to know the results. APRECOM is trying to change this mentality too and to get the church leaders to encourage HIV testing.
Many of the church leaders have a split view of the gospel. They see the purpose of the church as being simply to care for ‘spiritual needs’ rather than the social needs of those in their communities. So getting them to consider the practical care and support of people living with HIV, or even those who are poor, is not easy. APRECOM now wants to teach churches to make community vegetable gardens as a way of getting them to care for people holistically.
It was against this backdrop that we ran a seminar on God’s heart for children, the place of children in his mission and their holistic needs. All of this was taught from the perspective of being Christ’s ambassadors, tasked with representing our Lord Jesus Christ in Bukora and living out and promoting the culture and values of his kingdom. The teaching very obviously came as a complete revelation to these church leaders who had never considered the importance of children and their place in God’s mission. Many do not even have Sunday Schools. Few have received proper theological training. But the responses were very encouraging. Said one pastor, ‘There is no Sunday School in my church, so I will recruit Sunday School teachers and try to get some training for them, so that we can start to include children in our church.’ Another committed to starting home visits to children in her Sunday School and yet another to welcome children at risk into his home and church and to help meet their needs.
It was obvious that hearts had been touched and understanding enlarged, so Odeth will follow up this workshop with other, related teaching in the months to come.
Support of children and adults infected and affected by HIV
A doctor from the hospital, who is in good relationship with APRECOM, says that very many of the youth in Bukora are known to be HIV positive, but these are just the tip of the iceberg as there is a general fear and reluctance to go for an HIV test. Polygamy helps to spread the disease as do the marriage of young girls to older men, high numbers of girls who offer sex for money, and young men who engage in sexual activities with several partners.
There are also many elderly people living with HIV or AIDS. I have been used to seeing young people infected with the virus, but with the advent of ARV therapy, many people are living with the disease into old age. Not only do they face the challenges that the senior years inevitably bring, but also the multiple issues raised by HIV itself and by poverty.
APRECOM runs a home visitation programme in Bukora for those infected or affected by HIV. In February 2016, it started a support group for people with HIV and those who are generally vulnerable for other reasons. 35 people currently attend the weekly group of which just eight people have HIV. However, as word of mouth gets round and the local clinic raises awareness of the group, APRECOM expects numbers of members to grow significantly.
It is obvious that HIV awareness and prevention and the care and support of those infected and affected by the virus will become increasingly important, and that this aspect of APRECOM’s work will need significant development and resources in the not-too-distant future.
Despite the struggles of those that live here, Bukora is an idyllic spot with peaceful, pastoral views. The pace of life is very slow. Cows amble along sandy tracks and the bleating of hobbled goats fills the air. On the horizon are the mountains of Tanzania, like a tantalising backdrop to the lives of those who were thrown out of the country.
Donation, Odeth and I are en route to visit a couple of families supported by APRECOM. Suddenly, an elderly-looking woman hurries down the track towards us, her arms wide open. This is 65 year-old Valery, one of the women we have come to visit. She leads us back to her simple, mud-brick house, and into a tiny, dark room that is completely bare except for two small, wooden benches. We elect to sit on them outside the front door, where it is cooler and light.
Valery’s face is deeply wrinkled and etched with a look that suggests profound emotional pain. Her eyes take on a far-away look as she shares her tragic story with us. ‘When my husband and I were forced to come here from Tanzania, it was bad enough. But then he died and my world fell apart. Worse was to come. I became ill and after having a test was told that I was HIV positive. I felt sick and bereft. Surely God had abandoned me. Then my daughter Candice became sick and it was discovered that she too has HIV. Her husband abandoned her for another woman. Others in the village saw that we were sick and wasting. They shunned us completely – stopped talking to us. We became like outcasts. We just had to get through one day at a time. But then we were put on special therapy and our health started to improve. I could go back to working in my garden. My daughter picked up, too. Then gradually, more and more people started being diagnosed with the virus and ithas started to be accepted as “normal”. Now people talk to us again and we are included back in the community. I still have my fears, but God sees me through.’
Valery’s grandchildren come running down the track towards us and breathlessly fling themselves onto the bench next to their granny, who they obviously love. These are the children of Candice. Freddy is seven and Benita is nine. ‘These two keep me busy,’ acknowledges Valery, her face breaking into a smile.