Ashley Judd, Day Seven — Sonrise

Sonrise is a special place. Built by an Anglican Priest to address the orphan crisis after the genocide, Sonrise pulls in the neediest orphans from all over the country. Parish priests are well established in their individual communities and recognize vulnerable children. They bring the most desperate cases to the orphanage where they can be fed, watered, immunized, educated, protect, loved, raised.

Interestingly, they call themselves a boarding school rather than an orphanage to help de-stigmatize Rwanda’s orphans. Additionally, to help meet the cost of running the facility (which are fantastically low by our standards), they accept 200 students from “intact” (which can still mean a non traditional nuclear family — 1994 touched everyone) who can pay for the child’s room, board, and education. In addition to covering a bit of their operating costs, this address the wider social concern of integrating orphans into the society of other children, rather than isolating them. They equalize all children regardless of their status by having policies of uniformity: the “rich” kids only bring 2 changes of clothes, so they don’t look fancier than the orphans (remember, Rwandais on average live on .80 a day), and Sonrise supplies the bedding to keep it simple (no higher count sheets for the posh ones, so to speak). All the dorms are the same. There are 7 bunk beds with sweet, colorful sheets that would appeal to any child, and in the corners was a small plastic cubby for each child’s changes of clothes and their notebooks. That’s it.

But the place is far from austere. Classes resume tomorrow, and the large dirt courtyard (someone who reads this, please pay to seed grass for them!!!) was pleasant mayhem. The kids were running, laughing, carousing, exploring, and looking for all the world as if they didn’t have a care in the world, except when it was time to pull wide eyes at the arrival of muzunga, white person! I could really get used to this greeting. It is truly something to be a constant source of amazement and joyous outbursts.

Tomorrow, the children begin their school year routine, waking up at 5:30 to make their beds, sweep the floors (they line the window sills with their little shoes, and to wash themselves. At 6 they have a hearty, healthy breakfast of cow’s milk, eggs, and something else, I forgot what! At 10 and 4 they have a fruit snack (banana and pineapple) and lunches and dinner are meat, potatoes, rice, and beans cooked with other vegs, onion, and fish.

Sonrise is very, very proud of the healthy, fresh food they provide, and rightfully so. Everything is made in an amazing and beautiful pre-industrial kitchen. Wood was burning under the hand made oven that bakes fresh bread (delicious, I had some) and the store room was a still life, piles of carrots, cabbages, and potatoes leaning in corners on rough canvas mats.

The children wear white shirts (the girls’ have peter pan collars) and blue pinafores or pants. And what do they do in these charming uniforms? Learn! They rank top 5 in the country each year in academic testing! They recently have tested as high as No.1! Parliamentarians, ministers, business leaders, and the other elite of Rwanda jostle to send their children to be educated at this orphanage. They are building a secondary school and matriculating their children into it as they grow up. These are the only kids I have met who can speak some English and French, even the littlest.

Always thinking long term about the integrated education of the whole person, during the academic holidays the orphans go back to their home communities, as it is believed they do need to live to learn in a household and create relationships with their extended families and villages. I did ask about how the Diocese ensures that those households to which they go for a 2.5 months are safe for children, who by their very nature are needy, vulnerable, and dependent, an orphan being an example in the extreme. The parish priests are responsible for bringing the child to live with him/her if the household is not suitable.

In spite of all they are able to do, this is a poor institution in a very, very poor country. They did not have a single malaria net and I noticed while studying their books that they were paying a lot for malaria care. Also, they buy firewood, which is expensive, and have to use labor to fetch (car, gas, time, etc) it as well as to boil water all day long to prevent diarrheal disease in the 600 kids and staff of 150.

Firewood to create safe water is a huge problem: the use of it adds to deforestation, which creates erosion, which reduces topsoil for farming in an already hungry, subsistence land (it also creates greater catastrophe during natural disasters). It diminishes habitat and biodiversity. It is labor intensive and back-breaking on people who need to be spending their energy and calories doing other things to catch a break, to get ahead of merely surviving. It leads to children receiving the chore of fetching wood, and it’s always the girl who gets the task, so the boys can go to school. It is amazing how nefarious this one thing is, firewood.

Today we presented each child (all 600!) with a bottle of Sur Eau. One tiny capful will safely purify 20 liters of water, a bottle will purify a child’s water supply for more than 6 months. No spending precious financial, labor, and environmental resources on boiling giants vats of water. We also gave each one a long lasted insecticide treated net, which will drastically reduce incidence of malaria. One kid I met yesterday had malaria 4 times last year alone; this is so important for all children.

It is such a sweet place, I really enjoyed my time with the director Joy Businge, another gentle woman who held my hand. We spoke intimately and closely about all they do, and she carefully showed me each feature, each room, each staff member, all the bedrooms, toilets, classrooms (so precious, the long benches with built in desks, lovely dark faces lined up behind them so earnestly ready to learn), the ovens, the giant, beaten tin pots filled with supper, the vegetable store, the cows, everything! And I was delighted to see each thing. Rwanda, such a mixed state, land of incredible natural beauty, abject poverty, scars of genocide, and blooms of healing like Sonrise.

We closed in a big circle, holding hands in the dirt courtyard, singing “Jesus loves me” and saying the Lord’s Prayer. Earlier, I talked with them about what I do when I get scared (ask a friend if they can listen, get a hug from a safe person, write a letter to God, make a gratitude list), and after our prayers, I taught them how I do affirmations. I left Sonrise with a hundred or so kids chorusing in Kinyarwanda, “I am beautiful inside and out! I am precious! I am worthy! I am intelligent! I am creative! I was made on purpose for a purpose! I can do anything I set my mind to! The world is a better place because I am in it!”

To read more about Sonrise, you may google it! This article has links, too, on how to support them: http://www.mustardseedproject.org/section.asp?secID=7

ALL CHAPTERS:
Day one — arrival
Day two — genocide memorial
Day three — the countryside
Day three — the PSI.org offices
Day three — malaria nets
Day four — you go, global girl
Day four — water purification
Day five — world malaria day
Day six — Women for Women International
Day six — Democratic Republic of Congo
Day six — heal Africa
Day seven — Sonrise
Day seven — Dushishoze
Day seven — reflections