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29 June 2017

Running for justice, receiving blessings

Running for justice, receiving blessings

In May, Amaris Cole visited Rwanda on a Muskathlon trip to raise money for Compassion's child survival programme in the capital, Kigali. A Muskathlon is a week-long adventure, culminating with a run, trek or ride through the communities that the Muskathletes are fundraising for. While she was there, Amaris and many of the other European Muskathletes on the trip met their sponsored child.

Shema Prince is three years old and lives in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. He shares his home, a two-room house lit by one light, with his mother, father, two sisters and a brother. Two adopted brothers sometimes stay, too.

This new year, I started to sponsored Shema. For £25 a month, I contribute to his school fees, his clothing, medical bills and food. Sometimes the  money feels like a stretch, especially when you have a wedding, a new house and a honeymoon to pay for, as I do. But on 15 May 2017, I was sitting on the lawn of a Methodist church on a beautiful, warm day, and saw Shema Prince bounding towards me, arms wide open for the hug his mother had told him to give me. "Hello!" I cried. "Hello," he parroted back, with a cheeky grim slapped across his face. I knew from that moment that sponsoring this child is worth every penny.

While he was trying to concentrate on the questions I was asking through a translator, he kept looking at the tote bag of gifts I had for him on my right, with a Spiderman cap poking out. He was thrilled when I gave it to him, but for the following hours we were together, he couldn't rest: "Is the white lady giving me this hat to keep, or do I have to give it back?" He asked once, twice, three times. Then a couple times more, just to make sure.

Later, we went with Shema and his mother, Chantal, to their home. It was an amazing experience, seeing Shema in the environment he knows, being adored by those around him. "Sorry we don't have anything to give you," they kept saying. This family, sat on old, wooden benches low to the concrete floor below them and just a corrugated iron roof above them, were so grateful for our support to Compassion that they wanted to bless us with gifts. That sums up the trip. Everywhere we went we were blessed by people who have relatively nothing. We left the UK thinking we were going there to bless the communities with the money we'd raised, but everyone left feeling like we were the blessed ones.

The child survival programme that the UK Muskathletes had raised money for was run through the Methodist church, where I met Shema. Jacqueline Mukakimenja, Compassion's partnership faciliator, explained about the work done at the project.

There are 283 children supported in the ministry, 137 boys and 145 girls. "We support them in full holistic human development," Jacqueline explained. The streams include spiritual development, social initiatives to help the children mix with others, cognitive skills through schooling and physical support, provided by medical insurance. When a child is ill, the project also pays whatever fees are owed.

This child survival programme started in 2010 with 35 pregnant mothers, and has grown beyond recognition. "We have seen the hand of God on mothers' lives," she explains. "We have seen transformation in their lives."

The mothers are taught about prenatal care, how to nurse their babies and skills to help them earn money themselves. "They were very lonely and timid before, but because of the programme they're free and can be with the community. They love us and we love them."

She knows first-hand the benefit of this work to the community – she was sponsored through the charity when she was six years old. "I know how much it ministers to the hearts of the beneficiaries."

This church started its partnership with Compassion in the 1990s, having to stop during the Genocide that ripped the country apart. A few years later, they began the work again. Shema's mother Chantal found herself pregnant when her husband had lost his job. They had nothing for this new baby that was on the way. Someone told her about the child survival programme, and everything changed. Now Shema is sponsored, they are able to continue attending the project.

"We had nothing, but the project kept on helping us. Before we were not able to get clothes. At Compassion, they give us clothes and food every month. Before it was a very difficult life. Now we get it from the project, we are able to clothe and feed him. We are very happy and grateful for the project."

Before being sponsored, Chantal said she didn't think Shema could go to school because they didn't have the money. She is pleased that he now can attend "because getting educated means he'll be a better person when he grows up – he'll be able to help himself, help his family and maybe help the country". 

Everyone that meets Shema can see there's something about him. Chantal said: "When I was pregnant I got a promise from God that my son would be a great, great person and his name would be known everywhere. I'm very happy. He is a special son and I pray for him to be what he wants to be."

Shema is too young to consider all this. All he knows is he likes going to school. What he wants to be is a driver. He says he's going to school so that one day he can learn to drive. "I like driving very much. I like cars," Shema confirms. 

Anyone who's unsure whether sponsorship really works should speak to Ines Sandrine. She's 20 years old, a CEO of the tech start-up she's launched and a total inspiration.

We first met her on a visit to a local church on a Sunday morning that's partnered with Compassion. She was sharply dressed and spoke in perfect English. She still remembers the day she found out she was going to be sponsored.

"I was four, turning five, and it felt like a miracle. I was raised by a single mother and she didn't have a job at that time, so I couldn't really think about my future. But when I found out I was going to be sponsored, and helped with my food and education and everything, it felt like a miracle."

She decided then that she would be the president of Rwanda when she grew up, as it was "highest position she could think of". She wanted to help those from the poverty she was born into. I wouldn't be surprised if one day she is.

When I asked her what she would like to say to her sponsor, if she ever met them like I had met Shema, her eyes filled with tears. "It's been 15 years that they've helped me, cared about me, asked how I'm doing. My words can't express how grateful I am for them." All these years later, she still talks about her first contact with her sponsor: "It was so exciting when I received my first letter from her, I read it and I couldn't hide how excited I was. I took it to my school mates and showed them and everyone was asking who it was from. I explained the process and I was so proud." 

Ines said it's "so touching" that someone was paying half of her school fees, which her mum topped up because she was desperate for her to have a good education. She has now developed a mobile app – which is like Netflix – media streaming for Africa. It's a start up, but she's already earning money on it, despite not graduating until this summer. She's now looking for investors. As she was invited to attend Transform Africa, a global meeting that brings potential investors for Europe and African presidents and ministers, this shouldn't be hard. She says it was an honour to attend that event, but her modesty does reveal just how much she'd earnt her place. She was in the top five children in a Rwandan education competition, and developed the business model that took her to Transforming Africa as part of the ICT delegation.

"Without being sponsored, it would have been very hard to get to where I am today," she said. It seems to me as though it might have actually been impossible.
 
During the week, I saw children at both ends of the sponsorship journey. Ines and Shema Prince, helped by his mother, expressed the gratitude they felt for the opportunity they had been given. None of us are able to eradicate poverty from the world, but for £25 a month we can do something to help just one child, and therefore their wider family. It doesn't feel like enough, but it's a start. 

I flew home feeling blessed. I'd met incredible people whose lives are defined by their love of God, cuddled the little boy who I will continue to support for the years to come, and run more than 20km through the most beautiful scenery, cheered on by some of those we were raising money to support.

His mother told me that Shema went to sleep surrounded by the gifts he was given that night, Spiderman hat and all. I think he finally now believes that they're his to keep. 

Find out more about Amaris' Muskathlon in the Nov/Dec edition of idea.

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