Appeal: Parental advice - and a little wedding planning - for the orphans of Rwanda

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The Independent Online

Rwanda is a country of orphans. Amid the steep green hills and red soil, more than 600,000 children who lost both parents to the genocide 10 years ago have been left to bring up young brothers and sisters and rebuild destroyed houses alone.

Rwanda is a country of orphans. Amid the steep green hills and red soil, more than 600,000 children who lost both parents to the genocide 10 years ago have been left to bring up young brothers and sisters and rebuild destroyed houses alone.

Many are still traumatised by the events they witnessed but refuse to tap into the traditional support structures of Rwandan society to ask for help.

"I have no faith in the older generation," says 20-year-old Jean Pierre. "They destroyed this country. I see how they behaved and I don't believe they have anything good to tell me."

Jean Pierre has good cause to be angry. His father was killed by Hutu extremists and his mother and brothers died by his side in a refugee camp. He found himself alone again a few months later when an uncle he was staying with was imprisoned for taking part in the country's genocide.

Sitting in the rough, mud house that he repaired himself, Jean Pierre says he is convinced his neighbours will try to cheat him if he asks for help or advice. He is prepared to listen to only one adult: the regional representative of Send a Cow, the aid organisation that gave him training in agriculture and presented him with a cow.

"My neighbours don't visit me, but Austace from Send a Cow does. He talks to me openly and I feel I am free to say what I want to him. He is the only adult who is interested in me, so I trust him."

Rwandan society remains fragmented and young adults feel they are having to cope with the effects of a genocide they played no part in. They are also most exposed to Aids, which now affects 17 per cent of people aged between 10 and 24. Also, as young men begin to think of marriage, they fret that they have no family to pay the bride price of two cows for the girl they want.

In this environment, aid organisations such as Send a Cow have unexpectedly found themselves playing the role of counsellor and surrogate parent. The charity set up the Buliza orphans project with money raised by Comic Relief to help children who found themselves in charge of younger siblings after both parents had died.

"The orphans we helped in the Buliza district are now young adults," says Richard Munyerango of Send a Cow. "They became used to asking for advice on life matters, so now they still come to us for advice about relationships and marriage. "

The charity contributed towards the wedding costs of Sylvie, 24, who caught the eye of François, a boy in her local church. Sylvie's mother died of cholera in the aftermath of Rwanda's war, and her father is still missing. When François asked her out, she told him she had to seek permission from the charity, which had given her three goats and helped her care for her younger brother.

The aid group told her to check if François's intentions were honourable, and to find out if he would provide a good home for her.

Most importantly, they wanted to make sure Sylvie understood that the livestock she owned belonged to her and she was not under any obligation to give it away to a husband.

Sylvie took their advice and informed François, another genocide orphan, that she would gladly marry him, if he built a house for them. Undeterred, François spent a year building a home, and in October Sylvie married him in a white dress surrounded by other genocide survivors.

"Because of Send a Cow I had confidence and my husband has to respect me," she says, sitting in the living room of her new red-brick house, which is decorated with blue and green wooden beams.

She adds: "Without them, I would have no one to turn to, no one to defend me. "

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